August 4 2011

"On reaching the camps, the children are soon forgotten"

04/08/2011 - Charles Bury from the East Africa Regional Office of SOS Children's Villages in Kenya talks about the challenges to be dealt with and priorities that SOS Children's Villages must address in the vast crisis in East Africa and the advantages of good long-term relationships.

SOS Children’s Villages has been operating in the affected countries for many years. What are the strengths of SOS Children's Villages in the overall relief effort?

Charles Bury
Charles Bury from the Regional Office East Africa of SOS Children's Villages - Photo: SOS Archives
Traditionally, we have not been viewed as a relief organisation. But we have been working in Somalia and Ethiopia for so long and have such good relationships within the communities in which we are working, that we are able to use that to respond quickly to the emergency that we are seeing now. I think that is our strength.

Take Somalia: The teams on the ground are skilled and trained for this kind of work. They have been doing relief work in Somalia for the past 21 years. As a result, they have a skilled team as well as systems and structures which allow them to respond quickly in this type of emergency. Within a week, they had talked to the local government and set up a medical centre in the displaced persons' camp about 15 km from the SOS Hospital in Mogadishu. Over the past week, we've treated more than a 1,000 people.

What are the challenges SOS Children's Villages is facing in East Africa?

On a regional level, there have been challenges in providing sufficient information from the field to our partners around the globe. People want daily information - like what is happening and how things are going – but things just don’t always move that quickly. Before we can do anything, we have to go to governments and liaise with them to make sure we are not duplicating the work that others are doing. Then, we need to get the appropriate approvals. All this takes time - that can be a challenge. 

Is SOS Children's Villages applying experiences from past emergency relief efforts or doing things differently in East Africa now?

I have talked at length about our Somali colleagues. Their systems and structures have been honed over the years, so they have a very good way of implementing. Likewise in Ethiopia; they have responded to an emergency situation two other times in Gode, where we are based. They now know what the local community would appreciate and act accordingly. For example, the type of food they are ordering is the food the community is familiar with. They also involve the community and local leaders. I think that those lessons have been learned in Ethiopia and that they are carried forward.
In Kenya, it's a slightly different situation. The drought-affected area is new for us, so I think we will probably learn one or two lessons - which will help in case we have to do this again in a few years.

What is the nature of co-operation with our contractual partners on the ground, such as governments?

We have very good relationships with governments. Our long-term presence in all of these countries has allowed us to develop good relationships with most of the ministries, especially those dealing with children, health and education. In an emergency like this, it is very easy to use those relationships and contacts to speed up the processes that are required before you can implement some emergency relief.

Have there been any difficulties with the al-Shabab militia in Somalia?

The al-Shabab have not hindered any of the work we are doing. We have undertaken a baseline survey in Baidoa and we have been able to continue to implement our programmes in the al-Shabab controlled area, so we have had no problems.

The chaos of such large-scale disaster means that thousands of families are torn apart, so that unaccompanied children do not know where their parents are or even whether they are alive or dead. What can SOS Children's Villages do for those children?

Crises like this are chaotic, especially for children. In Somalia we were told that some of the families sent their children into the larger cities in search of food, while the family remained behind. These children went with neighbours or relatives while they were still strong enough to walk. On reaching the camps, these children were soon forgotten as adults looked after their immediate family members. So, we face a situation in which some children are actually short-term orphans. They are in the camps thinking their parents will come in the next few days or the week after, but what that means now is that we need to take care of them. There are discussions underway about creating what we call "child-friendly spaces". Those child-friendly spaces are locations within a camp that allow children to be protected and to get involved in activities, such as art or singing or drama … things that would take their minds off the despair in the camps. We are looking at how to support children in that way, but we are also looking at how to support orphans who may be admitted into an SOS Children's Village in that area. Finally, we must look after these children in the short-term, for a few months. Maybe they come under our care, before they can be reunited with their family members. It has not been easy for the children, but we are doing our best to look after them.