The trashing of Oxfam

Oxfam has to be condemned for the goings-on in its Haiti office in post-earthquake 2011. Without by any means excusing this, I think people could try to understand the context.

Anyone who has worked for an international aid organization in a disaster setting will have come across incidents of immorality or embezzlement, over-mighty behaviour, sexual misconduct and the rest. Shocking though this is, it is not very surprising. These environments are invariably chaotic, lawless, violent and deeply unequal. The people hired to work in such settings frequently have to face down warlords to get access to victims, argue aid convoys through armed checkpoints, risk their lives, and sometimes lose them, in the effort to bring relief to vulnerable people. Those able and willing to do those things often have a go-getting, driven and macho mentality. And this can lead to the creation of a dysfunctional and testosterone-loaded micro-culture.

Of course we would not expect sexual and other forms abuse to be tolerated among aid workers. And once Oxfam knew what was going on in Haiti in 2011, senior executives did their best to sort it out. Culprits were sacked or made to resign. The misconduct was reported to charity regulators and covered by the media – needless to say, not with every lurid detail. New safeguarding measures and improved staff vetting were introduced. With hindsight, they failed to act ‘adequately’, as they have confessed. But to label this a ‘cover-up’ is, in my opinion, grossly unfair.

The 2011 earthquake in Haiti devastated an already excruciatingly poor country, with a degree of brutalized misery in its slums as bad as any I have seen. Few UN, bilateral or NGO agencies rushing in emergency relief performed well. But I believe that the actions taken by Oxfam’s top people to deal with the abuse in their offices and residences once they found out about it were guided by the over-riding need to protect the victimized and avoid damage to programme recipients, as Mark Goldring, the current Executive Director, has explained. The sweeping accusations of a lack of integrity among Oxfam’s senior staff and officers are thoroughly undeserved.

On the side of government – the Department for International Development (DFID) and the regulators, the Charity Commissioners – the rush to condemn Oxfam for poor transparency is breath-taking. Did we hear ex-International Development Minister Priti Patel elbowing in? This is someone recently forced to resign over her own significant failures-to-disclose in a parliament that has failed to deal with its own predatory males. I see a decent organization being trashed for inadequacies in its working culture, in a distraction from events such as the made-in-Britain bombs raining down on Yemen. Sadly, this plays to a feeding frenzy of ‘aid hate’.

In this #MeToo moment, every organization and institutional environment is being scrutinized for sexual predation. The charity sector cannot escape, nor should it. But why was Oxfam in particular singled out for this damaging exposure?

Attitudes towards Oxfam operate as a lightning rod of attitudes towards overseas aid, and aid charities, generally. Because Oxfam is not about something unimpeachable, such as ‘children’ or ‘health’, but embraces within its mission everything connected to poverty from slavery to diarrhoea to climate change, its name is exposed. Oxfam came into being as a dissonant voice on behalf of the dispossessed, and its intrinsically political nature has landed it in hot water many times during its 75 year history.

What seems particularly ironic about this furore is that DfID itself in a roundabout way is not free from blame. Over the past 25 years DfID fuelled Oxfam’s extraordinary financial growth with big ‘partnership’ grants for humanitarian and development programmes. Oxfam’s popularity as a spending vehicle of official UK and EU aid has helped create the circumstances in which, along with other NGOs, it may effectively become the operational arm of DfID and similar donors. To do the work on the ground, teams of itinerant workers are hired on short-term contracts and deployed in the world’s multiplying hot-spots. These conditions are where the micro-culture of aid dispensation is most vulnerable to abuse.

The situation exerts huge pressure on human resources management. Emergency response, especially in sudden catastrophes such as earthquakes, when staff recruitment has to be done at breakneck speed, exerts additional strains. DfID entrusted Oxfam with millions in aid for emergency operations and poverty-alleviation, and were content with the results. Now, following in the wake of the Times’ coverage, and the light it has shone on behaviour on the sector as a whole, DfID has turned on Oxfam and treated it like a pariah.

In the 1990s, Oxfam began to soften its voice in return for a place at the establishment table. The prize – massive extra resources from aid budgets – seemed worthwhile. At the Millennium, there was an international drive, led by the UN, to devote official aid to addressing poverty directly, often through NGOs. Oxfam then enjoyed a golden era of universal favour, their radical championship of poverty reduction supported by establishment and public alike. Their reports on global disadvantage found a place in respectable think-tanks and the World Economic Forum.

That is now changing. UK official aid is now primarily about investment in projects to produce returns for UK interests. Nonetheless, there is deep resentment on the UK political right about the 0.7 per cent aid target and the ring-fenced DfID budget. So official support for NGO anti-poverty projects is losing ground fast. Oxfam’s annual report on the state of inequality in the world, instead of being applauded, was this year labelled Marxist-Corbynista propaganda. And now, with the Haiti debacle, comes another handy pretext to trim Oxfam’s wings.

Bullying, sexism and abusive behaviour has to be eradicated from the charity sector workplace as a priority. But there is no reasonable grounds for the vicious publicity and reputational damage meted out in recent days to Oxfam. The threat of financial loss from DfID and other big donors is real:the Swedish agency SIDA has just cancelled a joint project with Oxfam that was benefiting 250,000 people in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The loss of public credibility for Oxfam is going to affect not just thousands of their beneficiaries, but the whole anti-poverty crusade.

Maggie Black is a writer on international aid and development, author of official histories of Oxfam and UNICEF; also of International Development: Illusions and realities, No-Nonsense series, NI 2015.


Why don’t they go and look?

Kenyan slum

The reality of life in a slum, like this one in Kenya, is seldom experienced by today's development experts. Ninara under a Creative Commons Licence

One of the best moments in the Oscar-nominated movie The Big Short is when a couple of those who are beginning to realize that the US mortgage business has become a Ponzi scheme actually go out to see what is happening on the ground, where people live. They discover a contagion of ‘for sale’ boards and mortgage default: the evidence of the coming 2007 crash was there if you went to look.

If only leading international development experts had the same instinct. Too often, they never go near the situations of poverty which form the rationale and underpinning of their entire career. ‘I used to go to “the village” 20 years ago,’ one such professional remarked to me. ‘I don’t need to do that any more.’ Why not? Is every ‘village’ in Africa or India the same?

Today, not just the bureaucrats, consultants and ‘knowledge hub’ commentariat, but even regular programme staff spend less and less time troubling themselves with visits to ‘the field’. That is not how to climb the aid-industry career ladder. They will do better by attending a meeting in the Nairobi Marriott or the Dhaka Hilton on ‘bottleneck analysis’ or ‘resilience theory’.

How do you justify claiming a fee of $800 a day to assess or analyse poverty-reduction policies and practices when you never go near any person who is living on the proverbial $2 a day or less?     

It should be mandatory – if it is not self-imposed, which it clearly is not – for people whose work is paid for out of official and NGO aid budgets to spend a few days a year in a really dreadful slum, with filth at their feet and stink in their nostrils, before they presume to descant upon the prospects of ending poverty any time soon.

Assuming, that is, they are capable of engaging the brain while suffering such discomfort. If they manage that, it would become self-evident that the prospects of ‘eradicating extreme poverty’ or ‘ending hunger’ in 15 years’ time – the headliners among the new list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals – are totally unrealizable.

All the maths and graphs and pie-charts about world-poverty trends cannot substitute for common sense. In many cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, proportions of between 30 and 90 per cent of residents are living in slums and illegal shanty-towns. Many of them eat only once a day. Few have regular jobs: they live hand-to-mouth in the informal snack-food and plastic-bag economy.

If we are to believe the nonsense that we have eradicated half of extreme poverty in the last 15 years, these slums would be dwindling. Instead, they are growing. Even where bulldozers erase them, new ones spring up elsewhere. How do the experts explain this phenomenon? They don’t. The statistics they crunch are more comfortable allies than the spectacle of misery and marginalization the statistics ought to represent – but never do.

Today’s practitioners of international development spend more and more time and resources at further and further remove from the reality of what they are addressing. They want to improve lives en masse by attending to the ‘upstream’ policy environment in donor talking-shops. There are moments when one wonders if anything coming out of those exercises seriously impacts the ‘downstream’ environment in both town and countryside where people are trying to survive.

Front cover of NoNonsense International Development

Next time they say they have halved extreme poverty, why don’t they go and look? One day, when they have miraculously computed poverty away, they may finally realize the absurdity of their claims.

Maggie Black is the author of NoNonsense International Development – Illusions and Realities

Brash, flash and too much flesh

Christmas tree and santa hat

Traditional Christmas props are making way for a more Strictly Ballroom approach at some school plays, it seems. USAG- Humphreys under a Creative Commons Licence

At a school Christmas show, Maggie Black worries that things have gone too far. 

In the run-up to Christmas, many proud parents and grandparents rapturously enjoy a show put on at their children’s schools, where little people dress up in costumes and dance and sing their way through festive and nativity numbers.

Since I don’t have children or grandchildren, this is not a joy I usually share, but spending the tinsel season on the other side of the world from my home in Britain, I was taken by cousins to such an event. It was truly spectacular, the annual ‘Fantasmous, Marvellistic, Wonderama’ Christmas Show, put on by a dance school that aims, and manages, to have its mini-students perform in professional productions of Matilda and The Sound of Music.

The first number was from Cabaret. Lots of flesh, lots of seamed tights, lots of wiggling and contorting, and suggestive pouts, lots of brazen come-ons and smiles as big as a boozed-up tarantula’s. Lots of side-flips over canes, lots of landing with legs split open facing the backs of simple wooden chairs. It was brilliant. Well, it is the ‘Seniors’, I thought, inspecting the programme. Some ‘Seniors’ were about 16.

If I thought sexual suggestiveness were only for ‘Seniors’, I was wrong. In the next musical number, around 40 small girls and half a dozen boys filled the stage. The girls wore tasselled tutus, cut as tiny as you like, few yet having embryonic breast-bulges. They shook their frills seductively, smiling with all the wide-openness that taunting invitation can impart. Hair primped and piled, make-up generously applied, the line-up for Chorus Line was just a high-kick away.

Having spent so much time in countries in Africa and Asia, I could not help thinking how bewildered and horrified relatively unsophisticated (another word for poor?) people belonging to other, older, cultures would be. This is not a religious conviction matter, as people in those countries could be Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Buddhist. To me, it is a question of child protection, but of course that must sound hopelessly out of date.

Many sophisticated people in those societies aspire to belong to the shopping-mall, celebrity-mad, globalized culture we inhabit in the West, so even if shocked they might stay tight-lipped. This was what the upwardly-mobile audience in suburban Melbourne did. When I whispered my misgivings I was told by companions of the truly ‘Senior’ generation not to voice them. Reservations about children being sexualized as young as four at their ‘full-of-love-and-freedom’, ‘please get my tot a part in Strictly Ballroom’, and (no doubt very) expensive Miss Madam’s Dancing School were not acceptable conversational fare.  

There is a Pandora’s box here. How often are we told about the radicalization of young Muslims in our societies, how vulnerable they are to hate messages against Western norms of freedom. There was I, trying to bear three and a half hours of brash, flash, thumping-beat, child self-exposure in the name of self-expression and ‘talent’, and thinking I pretty much agreed with those who condemn near-naked, deliberately alluring, small-girl-parading as ‘immoral’. I may sound like a grumpy old what-not, but it risks making those girls vulnerable as they grow up, even if they have gained in self-confidence too.

If ‘unsophisticated’ parents in India and Africa keep their adolescent girls out of school, it is less because they are not willing to see them aim for an independently capable life, than because they don’t want them exposed to predatory sex. I’m not sure I don’t think they’re right, if this kind of ‘schooling’ is regarded as the height of liberated, child-rights supporting education. If it was my grandchild cavorting about on that stage, I would be bothered too. 

How to defend the United Nations?


Celebrating the United Nations 70th anniversary. International Maritime Organization under a Creative Commons Licence

After weathering decades of diplomatic storms, many wonder if the international organization can still be reformed, writes Maggie Black.

The United Nations (UN) has just turned 70. Battered, bruised, its founding principles long buried beneath generations of rhetoric, the UN has survived – no mean achievement. Now we are told that the UN Security Council is close to agreeing a game plan for joint action – Russia included – on ending war in Syria.

The complaints against the UN for not managing this earlier have been legion. But the UN has no executive power to do anything unless its member nations want it to. That is, in fact, its virtue. An initiative under its auspices may fail. But the mechanisms are still there for the next one, and the one after that. They may be moribund for a while, but if key players on the world stage can’t agree on what to do about a major issue, what else could they be?

When the US and its allies, and Russia and its allies, really want to reach a common position, the UN is there as a hallowed and anaesthetic diplomatic arena. Its debating chambers are designed to make you feel that nothing said in them could ruffle a surface or a feather. Positions depending on days of navigation over one word can be hammered out with only the smallest reverberation.

To have available grand, anodyne, neutral places where Foreign Secretaries and Ambassadors can cross verbal swords has a vital function in getting the world to avoid blowing itself up. It provides a dilutant for international rage.

The other day, thanks to having written The No-Nonsense Guide to the UN for New Internationalist, I was asked to take part on a discussion about ‘the UN at 70’ on Radio Scotland. The discussion was chaired by Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, and had two other participants, both men, one a professor at Aberdeen, the other a Reverend.

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It was very hard to get the discussion away from the political functions of the UN and the reasons why it is not able to end wars. We all roughly agreed on the reasons for this. But on what to do about this, and whether the UN should somehow be made to have teeth, we were at odds. I would do nothing. Well anyway, what can anyone do if the UN’s members can’t agree on how it should be ‘reformed’? It’s like reforming the House of Lords: how do you get them to pass the legislation?

I never cease to be amazed that peoples such as ambassadors and professors of international studies do not understand the true nature of the UN. That its vast canopy is wide enough to shelter a motley crew of international bodies, some like universities, some like NGOs, some like government departments, that in a variety of ways address issues of common human cause. And that the political machinery’s inability to override the great powers is a major strength, not a weakness.

One of my co-guests on Radio Scotland wanted the Security Council to have majority voting. That would spell its end. Imagine a majority vote in favour of Assad or Netanyahu. Then what?

The thing that upset me about the programme was not the discussion, which was fun. But that that the only part of the recording that was cut in transmission was Richard Holloway approving the excellent work of the UN agency that delivers aid on the ground in Gaza – supporting me on the UN humanitarian record. It really did seem like a moment of BBC bias over Palestine, and I was well and truly shocked.

A Nobel for economic measurement


A Kenyan woman farmer at work in the Mount Kenya region.

There are limits to what measuring poverty can do, argues Maggie Black.

The 2015 Nobel Laureate for Economics was announced the other day. It has been awarded to Angus Deaton, a Scot, who is Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton. So for a few days, his views about health, wealth and poverty gained attention. He is keen on doing things to assist the world’s poor.

Deaton got his Nobel for developing a new way of measuring poverty, factoring in how people spend their resources. He argues that if consumption is not understood, policies to reduce poverty will be less effective. Suppose that, when incomes rise, poor people do not spend more on food. Apparently they do, so no need to favour food aid over better pay – for example.

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No doubt Professor Deaton deserves his prize. But I often wonder whether all the effort spent measuring poverty, including setting ‘poverty lines’ and agreeing dollar parity values, plus debates about whether ‘extreme poverty’ means $1, $2 or $4 a day in no matter what subsistence setting, are a side-track.

These efforts, now an industry of their own, have been boosted by the ‘Goals’. This started with the Millennium Goals, now replaced with the Sustainable Development variety known as the ‘SDG’s’. There are many more SDGs, and they are much vaguer – providing the number-crunchers with new fodder. Lucrative fodder, too.

Sometimes it seems as if more people are in the business of measuring progress (or lack of it) towards ‘the Goals’ than actually trying to do something about the poverty itself.

A colleague at a UNICEF workshop once wisely suggested that we stop trying to establish measurable indicators of child rights violations as it was fruitless: ‘The measurable should not drive out the important’. Today, anything in the international development business that isn’t measurable doesn’t have a hope. Measurement, by ever more refined and arcane means, has become a substitute for action.

Of course measurement has its place. You can measure how many children are in school, how many have been immunized. You can also measure service delivery: health centres equipped, teachers trained. All this has a contribution to make, so it’s worth having ‘Goals’ for these contexts.

Unfortunately an impression has developed that if you can improve these ‘indicators’ and similar others you will sort out poverty. This is an illusion. Poverty is a horrible thing having many components. Domestic violence, for example. Family breakdown. Children thrown out of the home and accused of witchcraft. Gangs, rackets, vicious landlords, exploitative employers, constant hunger pains, personal degradation. How to ‘measure’ those?

Just sticking to the economics, it is hard to measure the ‘poverty’ of people living at semi-subsistence. Many of the so-called poor live well-fed and personally satisfying lives, but their ‘wealth’ cannot be captured by assessing their cash income or consumption. Their assets are harvested from the environment, from land or fishing grounds they don’t ‘own’ or trade, so neither resource base nor product gets counted.

Even in town, where everyone is in a cash economy, people at the margins still survive by a host of small transactions invisible to economic instruments however sophisticated. Count pay rates, expenditure patterns, food basket prices and service costs all you like, you won’t understand their lives.

Professor Deaton argues for building capacity in poor world governments so they can deliver better and fairer services and thereby reach the poor. There I thoroughly agree with him. So I hope, and trust, that many good things besides measurement will come out of his Nobel award.

I wish people understood ‘aid’ better


Haritha, a pupil, and her mother look at a map of England in a Chennai classroom. UK Department for International Development under a Creative Commons Licence

This week the British government announced that it was ending official aid to India. This is a mistake, argues Maggie Black.

India has the largest number of extremely poor people in the world – 300 million – and more hungry people than all of Africa.

India also has a large number of billionaires enjoying stratospheric wealth. It always has had; witness many a Maharajah’s palace. India has always known incredible extremes of wealth and poverty. Yes, it may have nuclear weapons, but it also has sweepers: people who handle others’ shit for a living. Yes, it has Bollywood superstars, but it also has girl domestics aged 10 living in slavery.

India’s wealth and economic prowess justify our abandonment of aid. But although rich Indians – and even some activist Indians – would prefer not to be cast as ‘aid’ supplicants, there is no way they will step in and do the useful things aid does.

Aid does not substitute for government funds. Such an idea is ridiculous since every Indian state is vast, containing as many people as, say, England. The tiny amount of aid compared to any Indian state budget is unimaginably microscopic. This does not mean it can’t be hugely influential.

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Take the example of school sanitation. Having decent toilet blocks in schools has not been a priority in a country whose public facilities consist of disgusting little enclosures whose floors run with excrement that sweepers remove.

Recently, it became clear that girls were removed from school at puberty because there was nowhere clean, or safe, for them to go to the toilet. So if girls were to get an education, toilets had to be built and schools become clean and respectable places.

Initially as a pilot, an international aid organization, with NGO and British aid support, developed a school sanitation programme. Model facilities and a regime of ‘clean school’ and personal hygiene was designed. When everything was working well, the model was taken up and rolled out state-wide, and later nationwide.

For a modest amount of ‘aid’, a school sanitation programme which might keep girls in school had been set in motion throughout the entire Indian sub-continent. Over time – such a process takes many years – there will be hiccups. Will every contract between District Education Office and Toilet Block Builder be corruption-free? No. Will every parent now believe her daughter’s virginity is safe in school? No. But a huge transformation is possible.

A respected Indian professional, working in the local state office of UNICEF, was mainly responsible for developing the initial programme, with colleagues in the state administration and local schools. She was therefore invited to Delhi to help lay down national specifications for construction of school toilet blocks. Imagine the millions and millions of toilet blocks which should thereafter conform to this design. Being India, not all will do so, but that is another matter.

Because she was present and insisted, incinerators for used menstrual cloths were included as standard components of girls’ toilet block design. Her own standing, and that of UNICEF, meant that the otherwise all-male National Sanitation Committee accepted this idea.

Now tell me that giving aid to India is pointless. That aid may be the key input that ensures that a major social improvement, enlarging girls’ prospects of education, is adopted as national policy.

This is far from being the only example of its kind. I do wish that people, including the British government, understood aid better.

For more on the aid to India debate, see our debate between NGO director Jamal Kidwai and activist and writer Praful Bidwai.

Calling time on the MDGs

Ghanaian woman

Activities carried out in development's name should be grounded in existing economic and social realities if they are truly to help people like this Ghanaian woman, who was forced into marriage at 15. DFID under a Creative Commons Licence

Fifteen years ago, the UN’s member states committed themselves to a dramatic reduction in global poverty by 2015, signing up to a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The verdict is now in, and – surprise, surprise – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has announced that, despite a few glitches, the campaign has been a roaring success. A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. The proportion of undernourished people has dropped from 24 to 13 per cent. And so on, through a carefully qualified list of MDG achievements.1

The mainly full, slightly empty glass depicted as the MDG outcome was utterly predictable, and the statistics used to illustrate it were picked for that purpose. It would be easy to select others to show the outcome in less rosy hues.

It seems invidious to do so because the UN and its Game of Goals is the only vehicle for international commitment to improvements in the human condition, as opposed to neoliberal adulation of the market and economic growth. That is a powerful argument for letting the Goals soldier on – a classic example of illusion trumping reality in the murky business of international development.

But reality has to be addressed too.

First is the serious doubt, especially if you count from the conveniently backdated MDG baseline of 1990, whether there really has been a significant reduction in the numbers of the very poor.

Then there is the question of the measurement of this poverty – less whether the sums are right than whether measuring it has become a displacement activity for doing something about it.

And finally comes the most important question. Why is this exercise rooted in a top-down, donor-driven vision, not in an analysis informed by the actual situation, views and opinions of those ‘poor’ the whole campaign is supposed to be about?

These are among the questions addressed in International Development: Illusions and Realities, one of the new titles in New Internationalist’s relaunched NoNonsense series.

In the last 15 or 25 years – is this a coincidence? – the development industry has undergone a process of professionalization and ‘academicization’. This has enabled large amounts of aid to be absorbed by university departments, research institutes and private consultancies created to expand donor influence and pay cheques.

Even NGOs have been affected. The industry’s soul has been captured by quasi-corporate entities whose concern for the predicaments of the ‘global poor’ is synthetic. They have become data sets, anecdotal case illustrations or, simply, pawns.

Irrelevant goals

Meanwhile, the ‘development’ experience of many of them has been negative. True, a significant number, especially in China, have joined the economic mainstream and climbed a rung or two up the economic ladder. In other cases, ‘development’ has stolen their resource base and destroyed their livelihoods. Dispossession has been accompanied by violence, not by reasonable compensation or a decent job.

If your land has been grabbed or your community torched, Goals are irrelevant. This anti-poverty agenda was established by experts who have never familiarized themselves closely, or even at all, with the varied situations of the rural, urban, indigenous, female, child or ethnic minority poor.

Suppose you are one of the millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who can only afford to eat five meals a week.

The global percentage reduction in hunger will be immaterial. If you are drowning off the coast of Libya or watching a bulldozer flattening your home in slum-dog Mumbai, your child’s vaccination against measles or bed-net against malaria is irrelevant. In the Goals context, such deficits are only noticed as regrets that ‘inequalities’ are growing.

Visit a slum in Kinshasa, Dhaka or Port-au-Prince, or a mega-dam or mining site where communities are being erased, and the degradation and brutality of poverty is tangible. No statistics can do it justice. But statistics is what Goals are all about. And so, inevitably, the statistics mislead.

Measuring poverty has become more important 'professionally' than doing something about it

The much-vaunted billion people lifted out of $1.25-a-day poverty were mostly in China during its economic miracle of the 1990s.2 Since 2000 little has changed. Today, at least a billion people are still living on $1.25 a day. Is this really something to applaud?

The figures are constructs anyway, not head counts. They are derived from formulae based on population figures, purchasing power, dollar equivalents and other variables. ?

Their assumptions are arbitrary: poverty thresholds in Europe and the US are five times as high. Recently, the development industry has made a fetish out of mathematical poverty, refining thresholds and methodologies and calling for an end to ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. How on earth could attainment – even mathematically – be proved

Later this year, the MDGs will be replaced with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), consisting of a broader agenda with 169 targets compared to the MDGs’ modest 18.

There is a full-scale debate about how they will be monitored and what this will cost: one estimate is $254 billion, twice the current annual global aid budget.3 ‘If we want to end poverty, we need to be able to measure it properly,’ says Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, busily promoting the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) her researchers have created – courtesy of aid.

The MPI has the merit of factoring into the definition of poverty ‘overlapping disadvantages’ faced by poor people, such as poor sanitation, hunger, and lack of education and healthcare, instead of only computing shortage of cash.

This statement of the blindingly obvious takes one’s breath away, especially as many of the very poor live in an invisible, resource-based economy where cash transactions barely feature. You would expect poverty experts to know this.

The MPI will be like the Human Development Index, a breakthrough idea of 1990, whose variables the United Nations Development Programme has since spent several fortunes redefining.

Measuring poverty has become more important ‘professionally’ than doing something about it. Data analysis is the development racket of our day. Who measures the anti-poverty contribution of the measurers?

Waving wands

No global agenda can transform the lives of seriously poor people. The idea that it could is a confection. Improvements in the lives of the poor can only happen on the ground.

Action at the global level is confined to a supporting role, providing funds and forums to carry on policy debates and other exercises connected, sometimes tenuously, to practical action. No global stratosphere exists where wands can be waved that will miraculously short-cut the frustrating, difficult, incremental process of poverty transformation where it has to take place.

Goals cannot tackle predicaments of exclusion, family breakdown, violence, exploitation, or the collapse of traditional protective systems and once-viable ways of life. Attempts to assist communities to overcome the worst problems they face, besides providing healthcare and education, and to design their own targets and agendas, are eclipsed.

What happened to democracy and ‘people-centred’? Why have we forgotten that no development process succeeds unless the people it targets actively participate?

Regrettably, the Game of Goals supports the gravitational pull of the idea that the macro-level is where it’s at and that we in the privileged world can fix up people’s lives in ways they have not envisaged or asked for. In this scenario, the third of humanity living in poverty are players with non-speaking parts in the drama of socio-economic transformation as written by ourselves.

There is another way. Activities carried out in development’s name should be grounded in existing economic and social realities, build bridges to the mainstream, and recognize that local idiosyncrasies have the strongest influence over whether programmes to assist people out of poverty succeed or fail. We need to rediscover ‘small-scale’ and ‘diverse’, and ensure that ‘participatory’, ‘equitable’ and ‘just’ are fully in the picture.

Never mind the Game of Goals. Let it go on. But make sure also to trump illusion with reality. Let, as well, a thousand flowers bloom.

  1. Sam Jones, ‘UN: 15-year push ends extreme poverty for a billion people’, Guardian Global development, 6 July 2015.

  2. Jason Hickel, ‘The death of international development’, Red Pepper, February 2015.

  3. Bjorn Lomborg, ‘Cost of gathering data on new development goals could be crippling’, Guardian Global Development, 25 September 2014.

I was a child soldier for Uganda's President

For many years, the focus on rights violation in Uganda has been on the Lord’s Resistance Army as a terroriser of children to fight as child soldiers. But the practice of kidnapping children to fight for rebel armies began in Uganda with the current President, Yoweri Museveni, and was a tactic that helped him come to power in 1986.

For many years after that he pretended to be a great reformer, a democratic leader whom all the donors loved – never mind what he continued to do to stamp out any dissent in places where no-one looked.

Now, after 25 years in office, Museveni is becoming more and more abusive of power. He is currently obsessed by the idea that he will become victim of an ‘African Spring’, mimicking the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. In this atmosphere of paranoia, he has targeted with extreme violence people he distrusts in an attempt to terrify the legitimate opposition led by Dr Kizza Besigye into passivity.

Kassim Kiggundu and his family have suffered repeatedly as a result of his own kidnapping as a 11-year-old in 1981. Recently, his brother has been killed.


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That terrible day

On a Thursday morning in May 1981, there came to my boarding school unknown, scary armed men dressed in dirty clothes. They surrounded us and told us not to move. We had to tie ourselves to one another with a rope. Then we were driven away on a lorry, 45 of us. We reached somewhere where the lorry could no longer continue and from there we started marching. We walked and walked and kept on walking until it was dusk.

We kept asking our teachers, ‘Why has this happened?’ Nobody had an answer. That terrible day was the beginning of the journey to where I am now. A Ugandan exile here in the UK. My mother dead, because of that day. My father, ruined, died of a heart attack in prison, because of that day. My wife is a refugee with our children in Kenya. And now in April 2011, 30 years later, my brother Rajab has been shot in the back, killed, a perfectly innocent person.

I try to tell myself I am not to blame. The one truly responsible is him, Museveni, President of Uganda, leader of those rebels that abducted me. The man who used us, children, to fight his bush war, stripped us of our humanity to do it, and then wanted to get rid of us, those few who survived.

On that terrible day, we kept losing one pupil after the other. Whoever couldn’t walk any more would be killed. A female teacher kept pushing us, trying to help us. She lifted a girl and carried her on her back, trying to save her life. But she herself became exhausted. They were both killed, bloodlessly, with a blow at the back of the head. Then they were buried in a shallow ditch, their bodies barely covered.

At that moment I became a man. After witnessing that horrible, inhuman act my heart turned. In that split second, I decided that if this was my life now, I would be one of them, whole-heartedly. There was no other way to survive. The next day Museveni came. His first words were: ‘Whoever tries to escape must die.’

We were taught how to use a gun. We were told not to harm any wild animal because they are one of us. We were told our smell, or scent, of a human being needed to change to be like that of the forest and the animals. It was true, they were part of our family. We used to pass by lions. To our surprise, they ran away from us. You would wake up terrified to find you had slept next to a big snake.

We were made to swear that if they brought our mothers and fathers here and told us to kill them, we would do it. You had to become like the people who had been horrible to you.

Did you have a choice?


And where were you going to escape to?


I spent my best teenage years in a jungle, fighting for him, Museveni. I trusted him completely, and he could see it. I was a spy, I did a critical job perfectly, and Museveni knew this and treated me as a pet. I was lucky because most of my fellow pupils did not survive. When Museveni took over the country in 1986, it was thanks to us, his fighters. But what was our reward? We were kept on the frontline in the north, in the 27th battalion, always fighting.

Finally in 1987 we, child soldiers who were still alive, were promised that our parents would be brought to see us. We were so excited. I couldn’t wait to see my mother. Sadly, it didn’t happen. The lorry with our parents was ambushed. My mother died trying to come to the danger zone to see her son. She was just a few miles away from where I was.

Some 18 months later, we defeated and scattered the enemy and hoped to be relieved. Instead, I was taken to prison. My senior officers were opposing Museveni. But I was 16. What did I know? I was given a five-year sentence. For what? For giving him my total commitment, for doing my very best. I was a young prisoner, and I was released in 1991 after international complaints.

Photo by Yohann Legrand under a CC Licence

I was accepted into the army, and I did well. I married and became a family man, putting away the past. One day in August 2002, Museveni called me directly, by my password, to go to State House. He said: ‘How old are you now?’ So I told him. He said: ‘Then you are old enough to fight me.’ He said: ‘When a person points to the leopard’s cubs, his finger will be bitten off.’

He was threatening me. Then he threw a glass of orange juice into my face and dismissed me. Three weeks later I was arrested. He never gave me one chance to defend myself. I was tortured to reveal things I could not reveal because I knew nothing about them. I only just escaped being killed. Secret helpers helped me to escape to the UK. I had no idea where I was going.

I often ask myself, why have I survived when my school-mates, and many members of my family, have perished at the hands of this man. I did my job for him. I betrayed many people for him. I did terrible things for him. But instead of thanking me, he betrayed me and wished me dead. And now my only brother has been killed by Museveni’s henchmen for innocently protesting for the rights of the Ugandan people. When I call my sister-in-law, all I hear is crying.

Kassim Kiggundu, 9 May 2011. As told to Maggie Black.

We need to talk about... toilets

A girl in Java, Indonesia, enjoying her new school toilet.

Photo: UNICEF / Josh Estey

Exactly 150 years ago, an exceptionally hot summer reduced the Thames flowing through London to a disgusting trickle. The ‘Great Stink’ off the river was so excruciating that Parliament at Westminster could barely sit. The terrors of cholera were relatively new and almost everyone believed that the fumes were pestilential.

This threat had a concentrating effect on retching MPs’ legislative faculties. The act they rushed through voted an unheard-of public sum – three million pounds sterling – for the transformation of sewerage in London by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and led to revolutions in local government and public health engineering throughout the industrializing world.1 ‘Laissez-faire,’ declared a contemporary editorial in the Illustrated London News, ‘is an excellent maxim where trade is concerned. But in the manufacture of poisons, laissez-faire is not to be tolerated except by political and municipal idiots.’

If only such sentiments were as vividly expressed today. Great Stinks are routinely emanated by rivers all over the world swollen with raw sewage and reduced to a trickle in the hot season. The Choluteca flowing through the steep-sided city of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, renders the valley air vile, for example. But Great Stinks do not instil the level of dread they once did – more’s the pity. Equivalent attention and massive public investment are desperately needed today on behalf of the 40 per cent of the world’s population – 2.6 billion people – without a proper means of dealing with the personal emissions of pee and shit that everyone on the planet has to manage on a daily basis.

Laissez-faire is not only tolerated, but characterizes public policy towards this hidden international scandal. Consider the implications. Because they don’t have toilets, millions of people practise what is known as ‘open defecation’. They wait for darkness to set off for the fields; or they dump the foul contents of their household bucket in an open drain when no-one is looking; or they squat down on a bread-wrapper or plastic bag and throw the parcel on a dump. Rainfall or a local stream, or maybe scavenging dogs and pigs, help tidy the mess away, or the sun may oblige by baking it dry. But in an increasingly crowded world, millions of people inevitably pick up excreta-related diseases from faecal particles lying about in the open, and 1.5 million small children thereby annually lose their lives.

Why on earth is this scandalous lack of basic facilities not better known and addressed? Part of the problem is the abhorrence surrounding the subject in every society. No-one wants to mention either the act or the substance, and many people are squeamish about even mentioning the receptacle or cubicle we visit several times a day. Except for those with a taste for scatological humour, euphemism is the rule. We talk about ‘water rates’ and ‘water connections’ as if no sewerage pipes exist. In the US, there are ‘restrooms’ where people go to… sleep? Toilet training of the young in every culture seems to include teaching them to avoid mentioning anything to do with the human evacuation process.

When it comes to public health, diseases such as cholera and other diarrhoeas, even worms and parasitic infections such as bilharzia (also known as schistosomiasis, bilharzia is transmitted by a parasitecarrying snail. It is usually contracted by wading in water with infected snails, but the parasite gets into the water/snail by being emitted in human faeces), are described as ‘waterrelated’ – even by World Health Organization (WHO) experts who know better. Although water has important roles to play in spreading the causative pathogens about, and also in washing them away by handy use of a tap and soap, they are not strictly water-related. They are not even ‘excreta-related’ because urine is virtually sterile. They are uncompromisingly shit-related – brought on by particles sticking to hands, feet, lips and utensils, either via human contact or from insects and bugs, from where they land up in digestive tracts.

Because no-one will call a spade a spade, a false diagnosis of the worldwide sanitation crisis and faulty prescriptions are often advanced. ‘Clean water supplies’ are not the answer. All the evidence shows that in the triumvirate of water, hygiene and sanitation, water supplies make the least impact on health, and sanitation much the greatest, followed by hygiene.2

Disconnecting ‘wat’ from ‘san’

‘Water and sanitation’ are invariably conflated in programmes for poorer citizens. In an industrialized society, where the press of a handle flushes our detritus away, this may make sense – although the profligacy of supplying 15,000 litres of drinkable water to every European and North American just to flush their toilets is mind-bending once you think about it. But in large parts of the world, the means by which people get rid of their excreta is entirely separate from their water supply. Their toilet – if they have one – cannot have its water supply piped in and its output piped away. Neither they nor their authorities can afford the investment required, not just in pipes and underground infrastructure, but in sewage treatment and disposal. Plus, in many countries of Africa and the Middle East (as well as India and China), there is acute water stress. So universal sewerage is a non-starter.

Wherever sewerage is impracticable – which includes most of the rural developing world, where two billion of those without toilets live – ‘sanitation’ mostly consists of an ‘on-site’ facility. This means a cabin over a dug pit or septic tank. It could be a ventilated earth closet, a squatting plate with a drop-hole and cover, or a pan flushed by a jugful of water or a handful of ash (see ‘For our convenience’, page 14). Over the years, pioneers have upgraded the item derogatively known as ‘a latrine’ to make it more congenial, cleaner, and able to compost or biodegrade its content. Some enthusiasts for recyclable systems recommend ecological sanitation for everyone. But the popularity and superiority of the water closet means that wastewater recycling and lower-volume flushing are as far as ‘ecosan’ is likely to get in happily sewered environments.

So toilets – not so fancy as porcelain pedestals but decent, affordable and useable nonetheless – exist in many models and variations. There is toilet take-up on a slowly growing scale (see box below). But numbers lag. One reason is that many ‘watsan’ programmes spend the lion’s share of their resources on water. In Madagascar, 95 per cent of funds allocated to ‘water and sanitation’ are for water, leaving six US cents per head a year to spend on sanitation. ‘What on earth can I do with that?’ asks the government’s chief of sanitation. Madagascar is typical. Sanitation has rock bottom political priority, barely appearing in national development or assistance plans.

Excuses, excuses

The excuse offered by politicians and planners is that there is popular demand for water supplies – indeed, in India, politicians outspokenly campaign on promises of new and cost-free supplies. By contrast, no-one calls for shit removal. True, life is impossible without water while a toilet cannot make this claim, however hard economists argue that the toll of ill-health is a costly burden. But the reason why demand for sanitation is not expressed is because the subject is taboo, not because people don’t feel it. For women, having to manage with nowhere to ‘go’ is not just inconvenient, but an assault on their personal dignity. The night-time expedition can lead to sexual harassment and attack (see ‘Dignity and the decent facility’, page 16), and reputation is also at stake. In urban South Africa, a woman seen cleaning or emptying a public latrine is unmarriageable. Unless the topic is tackled sensitively, it is not going to surface in a meeting with the local MP.

Even when it is tackled sensitively, eliciting demand is tricky. For a start, no-one installs a toilet as a health aid. Sanitation may be publicly rated the greatest medical advance in 150 years – as a British Medical Journal poll recently discovered – but the benefit is public. Privately, people are more often motivated by comfort, convenience, privacy, safety for women and children and social status.3 Actually, this makes sense. We want decent toilets because we want to manage our bodily output needs in a satisfactory and dignified way. And unless the ‘home improvement’ does this, health advantages are meaningless.

In one Nigerian village, the foolishness of glorifying excreta by building a house for it was greeted with mirth

Too often, targeted customers among the poor have not been offered a system or cistern they regard as an improvement on the great outdoors. Every society has a sanitation system – imagining they don’t because they don’t have ‘toilet cabins’ is part of the baggage of prejudice and lack of information surrounding the subject. They allocate special places, what is to be done in them, and who may go when. But search the anthropological literature, and you will find that the silence on shit-related behaviour is as deafening as if a blackout had been imposed. A few travel writers have broken the taboo. In 1964, VS Naipaul complained that Indian society was collectively blind to the sight of people squatting everywhere and anywhere to relieve themselves, and that the Indian peasant suffered claustrophobia if ‘he has to use an enclosed latrine’. His book was unofficially banned for its temerity.

Informal enquiry into people’s lavatorial customs reveals that people everywhere have reasons for what they do. In one Nigerian village, the foolishness of glorifying excreta by building a house for it was greeted with mirth. Only when their chief was threatened with arrest did the villagers comply by building one: the idea conflicted with strong beliefs which no-one had enquired into, and of course they never used it. In parts of Madagascar, digging a pit to contain excreta is similarly unthinkable. Fady (taboos) require that no-one should put their shit on top of another’s, and in a society that venerates the ancestors it cannot be put underground where it will contaminate the dead. Only after a terrible cholera epidemic in 1999-2001 did the question of fady, how real they were and how to tackle them, begin to be addressed.4

New facilities, new jobs. A toilet production centre in West Bengal.


It’s got to be nice

It is easy to understand why entrenched behaviours favour the air, wind, sunshine, and natural ecological processes over a hot and stinking toilet house. Unless ‘improved’ pit toilets are well maintained, they do not remain congenial for long. What happens in a ‘dry toilet’ with a drop-hole when people miss? Some sanitary enthusiasts build toilets all over the place with missionary enthusiasm. In rural Nicaragua, family plots may have two or even three ugly cabinets on plinths, so prolific has NGO effort been. But do people invariably use them? The evidence is that, even after renouncing the devil of ‘open defecation’ and bringing excretion indoors, regular exhortation by community volunteers is needed to stop people slipping back to the fields. In large, crowded townships, where space and privacy are at a premium, things may be different.

This highlights one of the crucial aspects of what is needed to set a new sanitary revolution in train. Arguments may rage between exponents of ‘ecological’, recycling and non-polluting systems, and the virtues of waterflushes and sewers (see ‘To sewer or not to sewer’, page 12). But what matters most is offering people a toilet they want and are prepared consistently and endurably to use. That means it’s got to be nice. The need to reduce costs sufficiently to make sanitation affordable for the poor may mean that the toilet they adopt has a very short life as a desirable facility. Will they then be able to afford another?

What matters most is offering people a toilet they want and are prepared consistently and endurably to use

In a community on the periphery of Dakar, Senegal, people all want a waterseal toilet with a porcelain pan. This is understandable. But it is not possible without a subsidy. In arid areas or where human fertilizer is valued, cheaper ‘dry’ systems may be fine. But even they are expensive compared to a walk in the bush. In a dusty village far from Dakar, women find a $20 contribution (60 per cent of the cost) for slab, lid and vent-pipe hard to produce. ‘Everyone here is in favour of toilets,’ says a women’s leader, ‘it is simply a matter of means.’

The public health revolution that followed London’s Great Stink required large investments of public funds. Whatever system is installed, it is neither fair nor sensible to expect those without facilities today to pay the whole price – as current policy seems to expect. The rationale is that ‘what people don’t pay for, they don’t appreciate’. But lack of appreciation is not the whole problem. Rather, demand is not being effectively nurtured, and there is no publicly backed, appropriate sanitary economy with cheap, attractive, good quality products ready to meet it.

Needed: decent jobs in muck

What could such a sanitary economy look like? The one thing it must eliminate is shovelling shit by hand. There are still workers today, mainly but not only in India, whose livelihood depends on this humiliation (see ‘A lifetime in muck’, page 10). On the one hand we have porcelain bowls and sewerage connections costing hundreds of dollars, buoyed up by an industry of civil engineering, plumbing, bathroom fixtures and municipal subsidies; and on the other, for poorer citizens, too often nothing at all. But since everyone has to defecate somewhere, there remains a ‘ job’ of clearing the muck away. One of the evils of ‘open defecation’ is that it keeps in existence a class of people to whom this job has been traditionally assigned. Here is a killer argument for decent toilets: better facilities, better jobs.

Intermediate industries have come into being around sanitation – including in India. Back in the 1990s, an NGO called the Ramakrishna Mission set its youth groups the task of cultivating demand for toilets in the densely settled district of Medinapur, West Bengal (eight million population). Motivators visited households as many times as it took to put across their message; and production centres were set up with starter funds where masons (female and male) were employed to manufacture toilet pans and slabs. Prices began at $7.40 and rose to $74. Loans were on offer to those who put down half the price. By the early 2000s, bicycle rickshaw carts delivering toilets to customers were a routine sight on local roads. By 2006, almost every household in Medinapur had installed a toilet. Hundreds of women and men have been trained in a new occupation and earn a good living.

Other examples could be cited, with demand for toilets and supply of an affordable and appealing item actively promoted in tandem. But thanks to most governments’ indifference, corporate disdain, and lacklustre donor engagement, they are not as easy to find as they should be. There is no one ‘toilet fix’ waiting to be rolled out to solve the global sanitation crisis, but there are many promising approaches and ‘lessons learned’. Openness is needed to quell the Great Distaste and get a new Sanitary Revolution moving, with the same resources and political push committed 150 years ago to solve London’s crisis. Let us hope that it will not take a rash of epidemics, stinks, and dying rivers to help it on its way.

Way off course: the Millennium Goal for Sanitation

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were established at a special UN Millennium Summit in 2000, but the goal for sanitation came later. This is another example where ‘sanitation’ was originally subsumed by ‘water’ – and ignored. A goal of halving by 2015 the numbers of people without access to sanitation in 1990 was added to the identical goal for water at the Johannesburg Earth Summit in 2002 – but only after intense lobbying. At present, it is one of the most off-track goals in the pack. In sub-Saharan Africa, on current progress, the MDG will not be met until 2076, indicating the neglect in which sanitation still languishes. The numbers of those without toilets barely alter over the years because the rate of toilet take-up barely matches that of population growth in the places that matter. Failure post-2002 to mobilize the necessary political will led to the UN declaration of 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation, in an effort to galvanize effort and resources behind the MDG. As can be seen below, even if it were met, vast numbers of people would still be toilet-less.

*Source*: WHO and UNICEF (2006) Meeting the MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Targets: the urban and rural challenge of the decade, WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, Geneva and New York.

Growth in sanitation coverage, per cent, 1990-2015

  1. Maggie Black and Ben Fawcett, The Last Taboo, Earthscan, London, 2008.
  2. Barbara Evans, Securing Sanitation: the compelling case to address the crisis, Stockholm International Water Institute, 2005.
  3. Marion W Jenkins and Steven Sugden, Rethinking Sanitation, Occasional Paper 27, Human Development Report, UNDP, New York, 2006.
  4. Andry Ramanantsoa, Rapport Finale: Capitalisation et recherche de solutions sur les latrines à Madagascar, WaterAid Madagascar, 2004.


Pep Bonet / Panos Pictures

Somalia is the ultimate in ‘imagined communities’, the failed state whose fissiparous character is unique even in today’s splintered world. Situated in the dusty Horn of Africa, this is a country whose Transitional Federal Government (TFG) exists only courtesy of the UN and other African powers, and whose cabinet and 275-member Parliament are not able to take up residence in their capital, Mogadishu. Competing warlords keep the city in a state of suspended mayhem, as they do most of the country. Except for their up-to-date weaponry, they operate as in the days when a ‘Somali nation’ did not exist and elders managed all affairs from the domestic hearth upwards.

Somalia fell apart in 1991 after a spate of clan-based rebellions against the genocidal, 22-year dictatorship of President Mohammed Siad Barre.

The terrible famine of 1993 in the south was entirely induced by civil war. A US- and UN-led humanitarian intervention failed to understand Somali complexities, was humiliated, and when it left in 1995 had fed more flames than it had doused. By then, the destruction of the infrastructure in the south and centre, including schools, clinics and buildings of any significance, was virtually complete.

Other African powers, and the international system generally, abhor a national vacuum. They therefore insist that ‘Somalia’ be reunified under a joint administration. Accordingly, President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, leader of the relatively peaceful and homogeneous northeastern enclave of Puntland and a candidate just about acceptable to other warlords, took power, or its illusion, in October 2004. This was the result of a long drawn-out, internationally mediated negotiation and election process in Nairobi, Kenya. There the TFG remains, squabbling at international expense over the nationality of possible peacekeepers to help them go home.

Somaliland, which has been an independently functioning political and administrative entity since 1993, refused to participate in this ‘peace’ process and maintains a tireless quest for separate recognition.

In its governance-free condition, central and southern Somalia is being run by local armed potentates in a dizzyingly complex and fluid state of allegiance and feud. Crossing the shifting boundaries between their terrains is risky, depending on a person’s clan lineage and the local militia’s mood. However, people manage. There has even been a renaissance of colleges, hospitals and other facilities in Mogadishu, thanks to inward investment from the Somali diaspora. The extremely free trade environment suits speculators and entrepreneurs of a particular stamp, particularly those in the qat trade: chewing this narcotic leaf is epidemic among men. As long as a person is not attractive as a ransom prospect and has not excited an irrational gunman’s ire, normal life goes on.

Civilians, especially women and young people, express exasperation at the credibility given to warlords by external powers. If they could be starved of finance, guns and glory at the negotiating table, peaceful co-operation on the ground would become more practicable. Civilian bodies and local authorities, with support from the diaspora and external agencies, provide the only basic services. Businesses or privateers keep roads driveable, vehicles running, phones ringing and lighthouses beaming. The very few resident international UN and NGO staff are mostly African; offices, locally staffed, operate under armed guard, directed from Kenya. A number of NGOs, run for the most part by courageous Somali women, function despite the risks. These, the local people and UNICEF provide most of the resources for health programmes and schools.


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