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Eid in a dry season

Greg Toulmin's picture

I am standing in a camp near Dollo Ado, in southern Ethiopia near the border with Somalia. The camp is an open site on hard rocky land: the only vegetation is grey, thorny scrub. An endless wind is swirling around me, picking up the light soil under foot and coating everyone and everything with a thin film of orange. Dust devils spin lazily in the relentless hot sun, making it hard to see the plastic sheeting that is the only covering for the ‘huts’ in which 10,000 people are living. Welcome to Haloweyn, the newest refugee camp for the drought-triggered exodus from Somalia. Today is Eid-ul-Fitr, but nobody is celebrating here.

Haloweyn Camp, Ethiopia's border with Somalia. Photo: Robert S. Chase, World BankWe have stopped to talk to people and understand the challenges they face, but it is hard work. Many of them have scarves wrapped around their faces to protect themselves from the wind, very few of us speak any Somali, and when we do communicate they look uncertain and dazed, as well they may. This camp is only three weeks old—less than a month ago all these people were wandering through this extraordinarily arid landscape, trying to pick their way past the lines of conflict, almost all malnourished and often sick too. That those we meet seemed to have recovered their physical health already is fairly miraculous. Their reluctance to relive their experiences seems wholly understandable.

Back in Dollo Ado itself, we learn of a grimmer reality. The people we were able to meet are only one side of the story. UNHCR staff—who mobilized at 72 hours notice from their ‘normal’ jobs—have been working actively with the Ethiopian Government’s refugee agency since June to build up the camp infrastructure and provide a system to properly handle the influx. And their implementing partners, mainly international NGOs, have been mobilizing also. However, while much has happened, some crucial support services, particularly those that require outreach to individual families are only now being put in place. The results show up in dry statistics: death rates among children under five are four times what global standards suggest they should be; access to water is well below the global standard to which they aspire; rates of acute malnutrition remain much too high. There has already been a major outbreak of measles in the Kobe camp (which we also visited) and UNHCR are worried about what the next epidemic might be.

The international humanitarian community is a close knit one, to which the Bank is a newcomer. A U.S. Government official in Dollo Ado commented that, “On all the humanitarian missions I’ve done, I’ve never before met someone from the World Bank. Are you becoming a humanitarian agency?” Despite her puzzlement, everyone is happy to hear that IDA is hoping to provide $30 million from its Crisis Response Window to support the delivery of health and nutrition services both here and in the Dadaab camps in Kenya. In this situation, a little money can go a long way in providing the services to help vulnerable people survive in the short-term and embark on the process of recovery. And it provides a way for the Bank to initiate a discussion on the long-term prospects for these refugees. How many Eid-ul-Fitrs will they spend in these camps? Experience from elsewhere suggests, on average, seventeen. Our experience working with the pastoral communities of East Africa can help the refugees, government, and development partners make sense of this development challenge.

As we are getting ready to leave Dollo Ado for our flight back to Addis Ababa, I hear that, in one of the camps we did not have time to visit, the residents found the energy to dress up in their best clothes and decorated the camp to celebrate Eid. An optimistic and cheering note to reflect on as we return to Addis;  working our way between the thunder clouds that bring plenty of rain to the Ethiopian Highlands, but not yet to the Somali Region.

Eid Mubarak!

Eid-ul-Fitr means the “feast of breaking the fast” and is marked by a prayer, and days of feasting, celebration, and the giving of alms to the poor. Somalis are Muslim, and so will have been on a religious fast for a month. But as drought-affected refugees they have probably been fasting for many months. When will the drought be over and they be able properly to break their fast?

Comments

Submitted by Ken Ohashi on
Greg: A very nice story. I am glad to see that you are helping the World Bank open a new page in its work in that region. As you noted, although the World Bank is not a humanitarian agency, its involvement in this work is likely to create some productive opportunities to think about the development response to the plight of the refugees. I think it is an exciting new endeavor. Ken

Submitted by OLGA BOLIVAR RODAS on
Your last question is a challenge for the world and for themselves. Thank you for sharing this reality. It makes me so proud to hear about the Bank's presence in places where people need our help the most. I am not close to the WB strategy (please apologies my ignorance), but these questions also araise on my mind: How humanitarian is our mission? Should we be wellknow in the humanitarian community? Every time we help a staff member going on mission, this stories come to my mind. Thank you again, OLGA B

Submitted by Anonymous on
Thank you for this beautifully written first-hand account from the refugee camp. I look forward to reading future reports about the Bank's engagement in this effort.

Submitted by Lillian on
Really nice piece Greg. It helps humanize the "dry statistics" of famine and the suffering that follows.

Submitted by TMcCue on
Greg: This is definitely a great story good to know that World Bank is getting involved and most important of all knowing that hopefully with IDA's involvement it will provide the necessary support in providing services to ensure the wellbeing and as you so rigtly say to vulnerable people. They need all the help and support in this time of crisis.Teresa

Submitted by james martone on
Greg, thanks for this. Will there be follow-up visits to the camp? More investigative visits like this one, equipped with necessary interpreters and translators, will reveal even more information about needs of these people and the best ways of addressing them. Thanks for starting..

Submitted by Greg on
Belated thanks for your comments. I am glad people enjoyed the blog. Bank staff will be following up the visit as part of our engagement with a new operation to support health and nutrition services in the refugee camps at both Dadaab and Dollo Ado. I am sure those staff will be better equipped, and have the time for, the more careful investigations that I agree are both necessary and appropriate.

It seems like u truly know quite a lot about this issue and it all demonstrates via this specific posting, termed “Eid in a dry season | Nasikiliza”.
Thanks a lot -Candra

Submitted by boomwala on

Really nice piece Greg. Thank you for this beautifully written first-hand account from the refugee camp. I look forward to reading future reports about the Bank's engagement in this effort.

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