Feeding Somali families fleeing famine

November 9, 2011
Raina Delisle
Stephen Houston

There aren’t too many people who would describe being on the border of Kenya and Somalia as “a case of being in the right place at the right time,” but those are the words of Royal Roads University student Stephen Houston.

Houston, who is in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program, adds a unique perspective to discussions with his fellow students. His work as disaster response manager for World Concern, a Christian humanitarian group, gives him a first-person look at the political and social situation in Somalia. 

“For my class, I can essentially write about what’s around me every day,” says Houston, who’s based in Dadaab, an urban area of Kenya that’s home to a network of refugee camps that house nearly half a million refugees from Somalia.

The centerpiece of Houston’s work is a project that supplies food and non-food items to displaced people in Dhobley, Somalia, via a voucher system. Dhobley is the last town in Somalia on the major route for refugees travelling to Kenya from south and central Somalia. The town is in turmoil; teetering between the control of the government and al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group. Despite the conflict, families fleeing famine are eating thanks to the successful voucher system, which was recently profiled in theNew York Times.  

“There are some big pluses over hauling in food,” Houston says of the system, which gives refugees vouchers for food and non-food items, such as mosquito nets, cookware and sleeping mats, and allows them to go shopping at 16 designated merchants. “You use the local market system; regular merchants in town make money so they’re happy, you’re not putting them out of business by dumping free food in the town; and people don’t have to line up – 400 or 500 people in the hot sun – and wait to get their chunk of food, which can be quite demeaning.”

The voucher system, however, does have some hurdles. Reached on the phone in Nairobi last week, Houston says because Dhobley is under attack by al-Shabaab, it’s difficult for his team to cross the border. “Trying to carry out a program in a town that you can’t visit has its challenges. We can deliver by the voucher system, but how do we know what’s happening? How do we know the merchants don’t just take the vouchers themselves?”

Normally, Houston’s staff meets with merchants and collects the used and signed vouchers once a week. Both parties count the vouchers and ensure the serial numbers match their duplicates before turning over the vouchers for a promissory note. The promissory note is then scanned and emailed to Nairobi. Within two days, the merchants receive a cellphone text message informing them that they can collect their cash from an office in Dhobley.

With limited access, World Concern is now getting refugees’ mobile numbers (a surprising number of them have cellphones, Huston says) and calling them to ask where they came from, which merchants they visited and what they bought. World Concern is also getting refugees’ thumbprints on a distribution list and on vouchers and then comparing a random sample of those two thumbprints to ensure the same person who receives the voucher is the person who cashes it. So far, theft and counterfeit have not been problems.

Houston says the voucher program is meeting its objective, which is to support displaced people and the community that supports them and give refugees an alternative to continuing on to the increasingly overcrowded and often dangerous camps around Dadaab.

When he’s not working with refugees, Houston is working on his master’s degree. He recently submitted a paper entitled “Violence and the Failed State: The Case of Somalia and the Sudan,” which was informed by his current work as well as his former post as senior IDP (internally displaced persons) adviser to the UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator for the Sudan. Before travelling to Kenya, he wrote a political analysis of al-Shabaab and the collapse of Somalia for one of his peace and human security courses, research that has proven invaluable. “I use a section of that paper in virtually every briefing for visitors who come here because it’s useful to know where al-Shabaab came from and how they came to be the way they are and doing the kinds of things they do.”

“I’m humbled by Stephen’s commitment,” says Wendy Schissel, head of the MA in Interdisciplinary Studies program, adding that he brought experience, maturity and an educator’s balance to the discussion when she taught him last year. Houston taught high school science in Saskatchewan and Zambia before becoming involved in refugee camps in Zambia, which set him off on a completely different career path.

After Christmas in Canada with his family (his wife is currently living in Abbotsford, B.C., and he has two grown, Africa-born daughters, one living in Ottawa and the other in Edmonton) Houston plans to return to Kenya to continue overseeing the voucher system and other initiatives, such as water projects, until the next international disaster strikes.

“My parents used to joke that they would watch the news to see where I was going to be next,” says Houston, who gravitates to areas of the world in most need of help. His resumé includes program design and management supporting refugee return and resettlement in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Sudan and Kosovo; resettlement of people displaced by war in eastern Congo and Iraq, and by natural disasters in India, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

“I never have to ask myself if what I am doing is worthwhile. I get to work in interesting places with highly motivated people doing things that are well worth doing.”