Donating to the Somalia Famine

Table of Contents


On July 20, 2011, the United Nations declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of Somalia.

At the time of our examination of the situation, an Islamist militant group called al-Shabaab occupied regions that the famine has hit the hardest. Al-Shabaab had only allowed a few aid organizations to continue operating in southern Somalia and had killed WFP aid workers in the past. With safety concerns present, very few charities had access to the highest-need areas of Somalia.

Our conclusions regarding Somalia donations were:

  • We didn't recommend giving to support Somalia specifically over supporting everyday aid. Despite the extreme needs, we weren't convinced that individual donors can effectively cause more aid to be delivered via their donations.
  • For those who did want to give, we suggested The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP) or Doctors Without Borders (MSF), but with serious reservations about each of these.
  • There was a severe lack of transparency on the part of charities and funders, particularly the US government, that hindered our ability to understand the situation and make a strong recommendation.

The content below is from our July-August 2011 investigation; we have not updated the content since then.

Organization detail

We spoke with and requested documents from the following organizations: Action Against Hunger (ACF), CARE, Doctors without Borders, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Medical Corps, Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme.

The three organizations below stood out from the others we considered:

  • The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC is appealing for funds solely for use in the famine zone, and our understanding from them and from the journalist we spoke to is that they are active in famine areas. ICRC gave us a uniquely detailed plan for scaling up and using funds. Unfortunately, we aren't cleared to share this plan publicly, but it was a more comprehensive and detailed plan than we received from other charities.

    However, the plan did not allow us to easily connect what ICRC plans to do with how it would spend money. Also, the journalist we spoke with told us:

    They are working in South Somalia in the al-Shabbab areas where no one else is. But, I've been told by some people that they screwed it up for other aid groups because they paid al-Shabbab a tax/bribe to work in those areas, and then al-Shabbab demanded it from other groups. Because al-Shabbab is a designated a terrorist organization by the US government, aid groups had to leave because it wasn't legal for them to pay money to al-Shabbab. So, while ICRC is doing good work, there's some resistance to them from other NGOs.

    We have not verified this claim or questioned the ICRC about it.

  • The World Food Programme (WFP). WFP is the only organization we spoke with that makes its detailed reports publicly available on its website. The reports include detailed budgets as well as quantities of food to be delivered and targeted locations. In addition, WFP is one of the largest entities (if not the largest entity) operating in the region, and they have been criticized in the media for mistakes they've made. Other things equal, we feel donors are well served to support the groups that will ultimately be seen as "responsible for" the response because they are most likely to be held accountable by donors and the public. Note that al-Shabbab has denied access to WFP in areas it controls.

    The criticisms that have been made raise room for concern as well, particularly regarding reports of World Food Programme food aid being stolen by al-Shabaab.

  • Doctors without Borders (MSF). We've spoken several times with MSF, but have received limited information from them. MSF is operating in the famine zone. We maintain our generally good feelings about the organization, but this is based largely on MSF's transparency about their activities and needs for donations in past disasters. We are disappointed in MSF's lack of transparency in this case.

Updates we've published on Somalia

Funds donated to the Somalia Famine relative to other emergencies

The numbers below come from the UN OCHA's Financial Tracking Service (

Based on the figures above, it appears that the Horn of Africa appeal has received more money than Japan did and is on a similar pace to Haiti.

However, note that ReliefWeb (which is administered by UN OCHA) estimates that 12.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa ( In Haiti, the Red Cross's early estimates were that 3 million people were affected (…), so Haiti had significantly more funding on a per-capita basis.

Referenced sources