UUSC Launches Relief Fund for East Africa Famine

In light of the dire humanitarian crisis — severe droughtleading to devastating famine — in East Africa, UUSC has opened the Somalia and East Africa Relief Fund. Using a multifaceted approach, UUSC willwork with partners on the ground to provide immediate relief to Somalis suffering from the famine as well as support communities hosting Somali refugees in other countries affected by the crisis.

As UUSC recently reported, the United Nations has declared a famine in two provinces in southern Somalia, which is expected to spread over the whole of southern Somalia in the next two months. With 3.2 million people — half of the Somali population — needing immediate lifesaving assistance, this is the world's worst food security crisis in the last 20years.

The long-term conflict and statelessness in southern Somalia has exacerbated the impacts of the drought that has affected the Horn of Africa and East Africa at large, causing catastrophic famine in both Bakool and Lower Shabelle provinces. The extreme drought has been caused by changing rain patterns that are affecting East Africa, Somalia, and Sudan, triggering food insecurity throughout the region.

International aid agencies are still awaiting security assurances before they enter the southern provinces of Somalia, which have been embroiled in armed conflict. Many, however, are now working in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital. At the same time, tens of thousands of Somalis fleeing the famine are arriving on foot to refugee sites in both Kenya and Ethiopia, overwhelming the camps set up for them and waiting outside to be registered. These sites are already in severe food crisis because of the same drought, putting grave stress on both governments and the local populations already suffering from food and water shortage.

To address the crisis and support survivors, UUSC will put a three-pronged response into action. First, working with partners on the ground, UUSC will provide immediate relief for Somalis affected by the famine. UUSC will also support communities in Ethiopia and Kenya that are hosting Somali refugees, to prevent their falling into famine conditions. Finally, UUSC will assist existing grassroots partners in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda in mitigating the effects of the disastrous lack of rain and extreme strain on food sources.

Economic Justice from Kenya to Arkansas

In the past year, over 780 UU congregations have shown their commitment to providing a just wage for small-scale farmers by purchasing fairly traded coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products from Equal Exchange through the UUSC Coffee Project. The ripple effects of this dedication are felt halfway around the world, as Equal Exchange contributes a portion of the proceeds from the Coffee Project back to support UUSC's efforts in building long-term partnerships with small farmer and producer groups through the Small Farmer Fund

In Bungoma, Kenya, a town just 20 miles from the border of Uganda, young people who have finished high school must work to provide for their daily upkeep and that of their families, even though it is very difficult to find decent work. Increasingly, these youth are finding themselves in the role of sole heads-of-household, due to loss of their parents from HIV/AIDS or other circumstances. The town's proximity to the border renders these young people vulnerable to prostitution, trafficking, early marriage, risky forms of work, and other exploitation.

UUSC's economic justice partner Muungano (a name that translates to "togetherness") is uniting the community to address the economic and social issues it is facing by providing livelihoods for youth while connecting them to traditional agriculture. With the help of UUSC, Muungano is training youth to run their own catering businesses, cooking for local events like weddings. They also rent land to grow organic, traditional crops, which they use to prepare nutritious and affordable meals for people with HIV/AIDS to ensure the effectiveness of their medication.

Back here at home, STITCH is bringing together immigrant women in Mississippi, including poultry workers, child-care providers, and women who have lost their jobs, to build their leadership skills and to work as a group to address common issues. Much like the Women's Network for Social and Economic Justice that STITCH facilitates in Central America, the women in Mississippi are growing stronger by learning about issues like gender, globalization, and human rights through the Women, Labor, and Leadership curriculum.

Five hundred miles away, in Fayetteville, Ark., the Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center is forging ahead with its campaign to hold employers accountable for not paying their workers by working with city officials to pass an anti-wage theft ordinance. The Workers' Justice Center is also continuing its close collaboration with OSHA to train workers on health and safety to reduce the numbers of injuries and deaths on the job.

The Two-Way Street of Technical Assistance

Sharing Experiences and Learning

Originally published in Rights Now Spring/Summer 2010

Through its eye-to-eye partnership model, UUSC provides technical assistance to partners along with financial support to advance human rights and social justice in conflicts, natural disasters, and movements for economic justice, civil liberties, and the human right to water. And our partners also provide UUSC with technical support. But what does technical assistance actually mean?

Here's how it works: partners or UUSC staff identify a need that has become a barrier for the partner's work or an opportunity for the partner's work to expand and serve as a model for others. UUSC then looks for ways to fulfill that need, providing expert assistance to our partners, both directly and with the help of members, universities, and other UUSC partners.

The nuts and bolts of technical assistance

Take, for example, UUSC Civil Liberties partner Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance (HAMSA), a project of the American Islamic Congress that integrates youth and young adults into interfaith work. HAMSA participants had incredible energy, enthusiasm, and creative ideas to build bridges across the chasm of religious hatred and profiling surrounding the "war on terror." But they had little experience in raising funds, reaching out to the media, and designing and implementing a project. In May 2009, UUSC staff provided technical assistance in the form of a grant-writing workshop in Morocco for young social activists throughout the Middle East. Participants wrote project proposals for a UUSC-funded microgrant, resulting in conferences and campus dialogues on religious freedom and an interfaith music concert.

For partners working in the cyclone disaster and conflict areas in Myanmar, UUSC Rights and Humanitarian Crises staff provided training in bookkeeping, grant-proposal writing, organizational structure, and strategic planning. Partners also share technical assistance among themselves with UUSC support, like the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, which taught grassroots groups in Myanmar strategies for community-based, participatory rebuilding schemes for cyclone-affected areas. And in Uganda, UUSC connected Massachusetts Institute of Technology experts with communities there to provide alternative fuel technology and creative problem solving.

In rural Georgia, UUSC Economic Justice staff helped the Southern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative develop a business plan for marketing their pecans, enabling the only pecan-processing plant owned by African-American women to reach socially conscious consumers.

Members get involved

UUSC members also provide technical assistance to help partners further their goals and assert their rights. Rob Robinson of Golden, Colo., an expert in reclaiming the environment from degradation caused by mining, is helping the Commission for Peace and Ecology (COPAE) of the diocese of San Marcos in Guatemala to hold GoldCorp accountable for contaminating water resources and damaging homes. COPAE wanted to establish a community-controlled water-quality monitoring project because neither the government nor GoldCorp would take their contamination claims seriously, even though community members were showing skin-related disease normally associated with toxic chemicals in water.

Recently retired, Robinson offered his skills in helping UUSC set up water-quality monitoring with COPAE. Robinson raised funds, put together a team of highly expert technical and support staff, and traveled to Guatemala to deliver water-test kits, train COPAE staff, and assist in reporting to the communities, government ministries, and elected officials. As a result of the project, the Ministry of the Environment has requested that the Ministry of Mines and GoldCorp establish a water-quality monitoring program to track toxic chemicals. Most recently, the team reported to the Congress of Guatemala, affected communities, and the press on damage to homes caused by the mine.

Everyone wins

Not only do partner organizations benefit from the technical assistance offered, expert volunteers also take away a great deal. Claire Barker, an environmental expert from Boston, Mass., provided technical assistance to UUSC partners Mi Cometa and Citizens' Observatory for Public Services in Ecuador. She helped them develop a model project to protect a section of the Guayas River watershed and estuary, which is being contaminated with pesticide-laden runoff. Barker writes about her experience: "Beyond the sharing of expertise, culture, and experience, volunteering with Guayaquil's Citizens' Observatory for Public Services in May 2009 revitalized the long-standing mantra ‘think globally, act locally.'" Her time in Ecuador gave her a first-hand view of the global effects of the simplest of choices, like eating inexpensive bananas on her cereal in the morning, knowing that their production is connected to contaminated water in Ecuador.

The two-way partnerships of UUSC's technical-assistance programs provide rich experiences and valuable knowledge for everyone involved — true examples of the concept that advancing human rights is the work of many joining hands.

You Can Go Home Again

UUSC's Eye-to-Eye Approach in Northern Uganda

We all want a place to call home; the desire is universal. In northern Uganda, more than 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes for more than 22 years. Targeted by both sides in the brutal war between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan government, the Acholi people have been subject to extreme violence and forced to live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Thousands have been killed; homes, roads, and services have been destroyed; and the very fabric of Acholi culture has been torn. In 2007, however, relative peace arrived in the area after years of atrocities. Families yearned — and finally had the opportunity — to return to their villages, but they faced huge obstacles in doing so. Over the past several years, UUSC has been using its unique eye-to-eye partnership model to help more than 6,000 people return to their villages in an integrated, sustainable way.

It starts with listening

When UUSC first began work in the Pader district — the most neglected and dangerous area during the war — in 2008, it sought out a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) that would understand the culture and history of the Acholi people. Caritas Pader, staffed completely by Acholi and dedicated to working with marginalized populations, was a natural partner. UUSC hired Jackie Okanga, a Kenyan with experience working for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Somalia, as a team leader to coordinate UUSC's work with Caritas Pader and the Acholi people living in two IDP camps, Acuru and Amoko Lagui.

On a recent visit to the United States, Okanga related to UUSC that many NGOs go into an area of humanitarian crisis assuming they know exactly what a given population needs. When UUSC started working with people in the IDP camps, Okanga shared, "No one had been asking questions. It starts with listening, with not having a preconceived idea of what you think a community needs." People told her, "All the time people come and don't listen to us." Sometimes what a community needs isn't obvious. People need food, water, and shelter — but for the Acholi to truly and sustainably return home they needed more than that.

They needed support combined with empowerment. While many international-aid NGOs view certain populations — the elderly, young, widows — as "extremely vulnerable individuals" (EVIs), UUSC prefers the term "extremely capable individuals" (ECIs). Challenging the culture of dependency that aid in the IDP camps encouraged, they told people, "We are here to work with you on going home."

Psychological and practical needs

As Okanga and the Caritas team listened, they found, not surprisingly, that there were major psychological and cultural issues to address before people could resettle into their villages. "They needed to bury the dead and bury the memories — but how do you do that?" said Okanga. Through a holistic approach to healing, Okanga and her team helped the Acholi carry out traditional cleansing and reconciliation ceremonies, arrange for one-on-one counseling for dealing with the trauma of war, and organize memorial services for the dead.

On the practical side, the Acholi needed houses, water, oxen and other agricultural resources so they could feed and support themselves, as well as access to education. To recommence farming, a "community solution" was established in which eight families collectively own and care for a team of oxen, youth take responsibility for plowing the fields, and then they are able to use the team to generate income plowing fields in other villages. With training from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology D-Lab, villagers began to use technologies to ease work burden and generate income — like creating biomass charcoal from agricultural waste — and bolster their creative capacity for solving problems. 

Reclaiming culture and community

For the Acholi, who have a rich cultural tradition of dance and song, traditional dance costumes and musical instruments were integral to helping them reclaim the culture that had been torn apart by so many years spent in IDP camps. "The Acholi can dance from morning to evening," Okanga shares. When she realized that these seemingly nonessential items were actually key, she secured UUSC funding for them and helped implement a system in which young people received costumes and instruments in exchange for helping rebuild houses for the elderly and people wounded by war. "It turned out to be the most important thing in terms of community cohesion," Okanga said. It helped people heal, brought people together, and supported their social traditions. Villagers even created a song about returning home that is featured in a weekly radio show that reaches the whole Acholi subregion and promotes the positive aspects of reestablishing their homes.

There is a saying often heard in the Acholi camps and villages: "Change begins in people's hearts. When people's hearts change, their feet follow." With the support of UUSC and Caritas Pader, currently 14 villages have been resettled. And it's been done in a way that preserves traditional culture while also integrating women and other marginalized populations into decision-making processes.

"What I've seen is people taking control of their lives," says Okanga. In working with Caritas to develop this new approach for "comprehensive return," UUSC hopes to provide a model for other NGOs — and ultimately reach the goal of helping all Acholi people, 500,000 of whom remain in IDP camps, return home by 2013–14.