Cellphones may be new tool vs Somalia famine

Wed Sep 21, 2011 5:53am EDT
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By Andrew Quinn

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cellphones may bring relief to famine victims in parts of Somalia controlled by al Shabaab insurgents as donors seek new ways to circumvent the hard-line militants, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, said that despite al Shabaab's ban on foreign aid in regions they control, progress was being made to reach about 2.7 million people desperately in need of help.

"It is difficult to provide large-scale commodity support. Food convoys have been attacked, so we're trying a number of more innovative approaches," Shah told Reuters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Cellphone networks and the traditional "hawala" money transfer system used in many Islamic societies are two such routes, Shah said, while aid groups from Gulf Arab countries and elsewhere were also making inroads.

"We're trying cash distributions through the hawala system and through mobile phones and then concomitantly flooding border markets with food so that traders can then make the connections," Shah said.

Al Shabaab, a hard-line Islamist group linked to al Qaeda which controls most of the southern part of Somalia, banned food aid last year and kicked many groups out, saying aid creates dependency.

Some 3.7 million Somalis are at risk of starvation in the worst drought in decades, including some 2 million in rebel-held regions were most major aid agencies cannot reach.

Some local agencies are allowed to deliver aid to these areas, but this is not enough for all those who need it.   Continued...

<p>A Somali resident purchases a cell-phone handset at a shopping centre in Mogadishu, November 4, 2009. REUTERS/Feisal Oma</p>