Controversy Trails Food-Distribution Efforts (story and gallery)

By Jessica Stallone

KOONO, Turkana, Kenya – In the cooling shade of doum palm trees, more than 30 women sat waiting with restless children in their laps. A jeep driven by Merlin relief workers materialized out of the sandy hills that lined the Koono village horizon, ending the women’s wait.

Every other Friday, the Koono villagers wait by the tire tracks carved into the desert sand for the aid workers’ return. They rely for their survival on the food and medicine that the organization provides.

Aid groups say they began distributing food aid in the 1980s to alleviate starvation caused by drought, but they soon found that Turkana was experiencing longer and more frequent droughts.Critics argue that the aid groups have become an entrenched presence that has prevented the Turkana people from developing self-sufficiency in response to changing conditions. Some critics say the groups’ leaders just want to keep themselves in business.

“Aid leads to dependency, and that has been documented,” said Andrew Nelson, a Nairobi-based program economist with the U.S. Agency for International Development who visited Turkana in January. “It happens all over the place.”

Aid groups acknowledge that dependency on food relief is a problem, but they blame the Kenyan government for failing to provide enough money, expertise and equipment to devise long-term solutions for areas like Turkana where hunger persists. Because of their own tight budgets, aid groups focus on emergency responses, such as handing out food, that are less costly and have measurable results that the groups can report to donors.

“Long-term development programs are way too expensive, and it’s very difficult to measure their impacts within a short time,” said Adan Abdullahi, a project coordinator for the international aid organization Merlin. “Agencies and donors find themselves funding and implementing short-term, unsustainable programs, just to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.”

As the food aid continues, its recipients may come to depend on it. In several instances, Turkana people have made adjustments to their traditions to accommodate the presence of aid in their lives.

For example, one village near the Turkwel River split itself into three separate villages— Nachukule, Nakwamekwi and Nakezhichok —to speed up the distribution of aid. In Kerio, people walk nine miles to pick up 50-pound bags of U.S.-grown cornmeal and sorghum delivered by nongovernmental organizations. Then they carry the heavy bags back across the Kerio River and across the dry plains to their homesteads.

In Koono, villagers line up every two weeks for Merlin’s help. The workers set up a makeshift dispensary to provide both medical and food aid. Merlin, a U.K.-based international aid group that operates in 16 countries, has worked in Turkana since 2004. Its website says the group fed 50,000 people in Turkana during the last five months of 2011. On this January day, more than 60 people were waiting to be examined in order to obtain relief supplies.

Merlin relief workers weighed, measured and examined dozens of children as their mothers awaited their handouts: vegetable oil from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Corn Soya Blend and Plumpy Nut, a ready-to-eat bar, provided by UNICEF. Merlin obtains its supplies through Kenya’s Ministry of Health and the World Food Programme, a UN agency, said Geoffry Murrthi, a nutrition officer for the group.

In a village afflicted by drought, the community often cannot produce enough food to sustain its members, at least using traditional methods. Aid reliance may become habitual. Recently, nongovernmental organizations have started programs that promote self-reliance.

“If you empower people, then dependency isn’t a part of it,” said Rose Ogola, a public information officer with World Food Programme Kenya, a United Nations agency. “That is why we are trying to work on long-term programs, because food aid isn’t sustainable.”

In the past two years, the World Food Programme has initiated programs that encourage self-reliance, Ogola said. These programs involve water harvesting, a method of collecting rainwater for humans and livestock, and drought-resistant crops such as sorghum and green grams, which are also known as mung beans.

But agricultural programs have yet to fully take off in Turkana, where pastoralism – a semi-nomadic life centered on herding animals — is the traditional way. “We still give relief food in the very dry communities,” Ogola said.

At the same time that access to healthcare and food aid increased, the Kenyan population grew. The country’s population was 31.3 million in 2000. In 2011, the population reached 41.7 million. The U.N. projects that the country’s population could reach 85 million people by 2050, more than doubling in the next four decades.

Kenya’s population increased 2.67 percent in 2011, according to a World Bank report published in 2012. In contrast, the U.S. population grew 1.6 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile, Turkana, an area once rich in diverse wildlife, experienced a decline in indigenous animals. Growing herds of domesticated animals – goats, sheep, cattle and camels – have contributed to desertification in the region, according to a 1987 scholarly article by the Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal African Society titled “Development in Kenya: Drought, Desertification and Food Scarcity.”

The established NGOs have created their own systems in Turkana, carving up the tasks of distributing food aid and health care to different groups. Merlin distributes food to lactating women and children under the age of 5. Oxfam distributes food to all others who meet its guidelines. As for medical aid, Merlin covers four of Turkana’s six districts. World Vision, an evangelical relief group, and the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based aid organization, cover the remaining two.

And the aid trucks continue to rumble through the dry plains. The recipients have come to expect them.

“If the aid doesn’t continue, then they will suffer,” said Peter Emkwi, an elder of the Koono village. “Those who have been born, and those who haven’t yet been born.”

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