sexta-feira, 8 de maio de 2009

Saharawi Red Crescent – a well-oiled machine

For 35 years, the Saharawi refugees living in the five camps surrounding Tindouf, Algeria, have survived largely on emergency humanitarian food aid. Approximately 2,760 tons of food aid arrive in the Saharawi camps each month, every ounce of which must be efficiently transported to the proper recipients, who occupy five different camps, all of which are separated by at least a 30-minute Land Rover drive. What international organization is in charge of undertaking this gargantuan process?

The reader may be surprised to learn that, unlike in the traditional Western image of refugees, the Saharawis do not line up in long queues, awaiting their spoonfuls of unidentifiable morsels to survive another day of existence. Rather, the process of humanitarian food aid distribution is organized, coordinated, and undertaken by the Saharawis themselves, through the Saharawi Red Crescent (SRC).

The following information is taken from an interview with Bouhabayni Yehyeh, the current director of the Saharawi Red Crescent.

From the ground up
Just like all Saharawi institutions here outside of Tindouf, the Saharawi Red Crescent was built from scratch, with little to no experience, but an intense desire to improve the lives of their fellow countrymen. In its 30-plus years of existence the SRC has developed into an incredibly complex and transparent organization.

The SRC was founded in November of 1975, immediately following the invasion and occupation of the Western Sahara by the Royal Moroccan Army and hundreds of thousands of Moroccan settlers. The SRC s original activities were focused upon reuniting of families who had fled the Moroccan napalm and mortar attacks and supplying the Saharawi refugees with food, water, and housing (tents made of tarps). In the mid-1980s, when humanitarian aid from international organizations began to arrive in the camps, the SRC had to adapt its role.

Currently, the SRC receives food bought with donations from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations Children s Fund (UNICEF), the Spanish Agency for Cooperation, the Algerian Red Crescent, and the European Commission s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

"Our mission now is to facilitate the search, reception, storage, and distribution of the basic food basket ," cites Bouhabayni.

Each month, 125,000 individuals – those identified by the UNHCR as the "most vulnerable" – receive the following foodstuffs: 2 kg of lentils, 1 liter of vegetable oil, 1 kg of sugar, and 13.5 kg of carbohydrates, which for decades consisted entirely of flour, but was diversified in late-2008 to include 2 kg of barley, 2 kg of rice, and 2 kg of corn or peas.

"These food items are essential, but still not enough to provide a balanced diet," says Bouhabayni.

Whereas food aid used to arrive in 6-month increments, it is now delivered on a monthly basis, and sometimes the deliveries are late.

"We have no emergency stock," admits Bouhabayni, "so if there is a delay, we all suffer. Families sometimes do not know if they are receiving last month s food, or this month s, or maybe even next month s."

The WFP, which annually requests $50 million from donor organizations for the Western Saharan refugees, is dependent on the good-will of external sources.

"We have a problem with donor fatigue, because it s not a sexy conflict," admits Bouhabayni. "That s why a main part of our mission consists of international campaigns for donations."

Pointing fingers
As with the sending of young Saharawis to study in Cuba, the cohesion of the Saharawi people in the camps, and non-alignment during the Cold War, the SRC has somehow found its way into the annals of Moroccan propaganda against the Polisario Front, the leaders of the Saharawi movement for independence.

In a 2005 report published on the Web site of the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a registered agent of the Kingdom of Morocco, it was reported that a confidential document of a World Food Program inspection in the Tindouf camps stated that "[t]he inspectors noted a certain number of weaknesses in aid control and management both in the logistic chain and in distribution."

When asked about the diversion of humanitarian food aid and its selling on the black market – the possibility of which has been cited in a number of Moroccan-supported reports – the director of the SRC cast a sideways glance and left the office. He re-entered carrying a stack of papers and carbon-copy receipts. It was clear that he had been asked this question before.

How do they do that?
This is the process of food distribution as Bouhabayni explains it:

Once per month, the food aid arrives at the port of Oran, where it is immediately loaded onto trucks and shipped to Algiers. In Algiers, a committee consisting of representatives of the UNHCR, UNICEF, the Spanish Agency of Cooperation, the Saharawi Red Crescent, the Algerian Red Crescent, ECHO, and the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as an observer), meets to inspect and record the quantities of the products and the SRC s plan for distribution.

From Algiers, the foodstuffs are transported by land to the administrative Saharawi camp of Rabouni, where the SRC headquarters are located. Records of all of the food received are written down and signed by the director of storage, the drivers of the trucks, and individual managers within the storage sections (which are separated by food type). The aid is immediately divided up by product and stored.

Before the end of each month, the SRC must produce three documents. The first is the stock of the storage facilities. The second is the distribution plan, which includes the number of rations/kilos of each product that will be given to each of the recipient refugees, who are listed by name, age, gender, family information, and address within the camps, which is broken down to wilaya (camp), daira (city), and barrio (neighborhood). The third document is the distribution schedule, which lists the day that the food will be arriving to each daira of each wilaya.

The WFP receives copies of all of these documents each month, and the SRC representatives and the presidents of each daira are given a copy of the distribution schedule several days before the aid is scheduled to arrive in a particular camp.

"We record everything, down to the distribution of each kilo of each product to each person in every camp," boasts Bouhabayni.

Load em up
Once these documents are completed and presented to the WFP, the SRC begins the long, arduous process of delivering vital foodstuffs to the 125,000 "most vulnerable" refugees. The SRC s self-devised methods for doing so would put any international aid organization to shame.

First, a truck arrives in the Distribution Center, where the chief of distribution must fill out a form including the quantity of each product to be delivered, the organizations that donated the products, the month of distribution, the truck s registration number, and the name of the driver. The form must be signed by the driver and two representatives from the Distribution Center.

At this point, the driver does not know his final destination.

He must take two copies of the completed form to the Storage Center, where he presents one of them. At the storage center, another form is filled out, including the name of the director of storage that day, the section (aka, product) the driver is loading from, the name of the director of the particular section, the name of the leader of the group of six SRC workers in that section, and the driver s name.

The truck is loaded, and the form is signed by the director of storage, the director of the section, the leader of the group of section workers, and the driver, who takes two copies back to the Distribution Center.

Here, the driver must present the copy of the form from the Storage Center, and he his given his final orders of delivery, which include a list of the products he is carrying and the daira to which he must deliver.

On the road again
At this point, the driver can finally begin the journey to the particular wilaya, with copies of each form in hand (the other copies are presented to WFP representatives on a daily basis).

Once in the daira, the driver is met by the local SRC representative, the president of the daira, and the leaders of the daira groups. (For purposes of food distribution, the dairas are broken down into groups of 150 individuals, which are further divided into sub-groups of 50 people, since the food aid often arrives in 50-kg bags. The groups and sub-groups democratically select their own leaders).

The contents of the truck are checked by these individuals, and a form must be signed by all three, noting any irregularities or inconsistencies between the documents carried by the driver and the actual products of the truck.

At this point, the food is unloaded and taken to a central meeting place in each sub-group s neighborhood, where individual family members must come and claim their food, checking their names off of a list.

All of the documents produced during this daily process are provided to the WFP and the SRC s Office of Monitoring and Control. Further, WFP representatives are free to enter the SRC Distribution and Storage Centers at any time, and they can speak with individual families or group leaders to inquire about the distribution.

After displaying this dizzying parade of paperwork, Bouhabayni succinctly dispelled the theory of diversion of humanitarian aid by the Polisario leadership.

"Look, there are over 150,000 hungry, frustrated refugees here in the camps," he said. "Do you really believe that the leaders of the Polisario could walk and sleep peacefully among the people if they thought that their food was being taken from them? Muhamed Abdelazziz [Secretary General of the Polisario Front and President of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic] lives in a normal house with no guards. If the Polisario was stealing food, do you think he could that?"

Not here for the long run
While it is apparent that, at least at present, the food distribution chain is a well-oiled, highly transparent process, the fuel that fires it is still based on emergency international aid, which makes the SRC s efforts more complicated.

"We can t use the same standards that are applied to short-term emergency standards – we ve been here for over 30 years!" Bouhabayni points out. "We re not trying to develop or settle in here, but we do need enough to survive and maintain the health of the Saharawi people."

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