Philanthropy Must Stop Ignoring the World’s Hardest Hit Climate Victims
Far from the record-breaking heat in the Southwest this summer and the persistent haze from Canadian wildfires, the climate crisis is having devastating effects on the 255,000 residents of a place called “Nowhere.” That community, which I last visited this spring, is more commonly known as the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya. Tellingly, Kakuma means “nowhere” in Swahili.
The infrequently operated, two-hour flight to Kakuma from Nairobi flies low enough to watch the scenery grow increasingly remote. I was there with donors in my role as head of communications and development at the humanitarian aid organization
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Far from the horrific wildfires in Maui and the record-breaking heat in the Southwest this summer, the climate crisis is having devastating effects on the 255,000 residents of a place called “Nowhere.” That community, which I last visited this spring, is more commonly known as the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya. Tellingly, Kakuma means “nowhere” in Swahili.
The infrequently operated, two-hour flight to Kakuma from Nairobi flies low enough to watch the scenery grow increasingly remote. I was there with donors in my role as head of communications and development at the humanitarian-aid organization IsraAID. The worst drought in 40 years is wreaking havoc on communities such as Kakuma in the Horn of Africa, which rarely make front-page news or capture the attention of philanthropy program officers. As is often the case with climate change, in the eyes of the rest of the world, the most vulnerable people are nowhere to be seen.
In part, that’s because places like Kakuma remain chronically underfunded, despite the urgent calls of humanitarian groups and their development teams. In my role, I’ve learned that we not only need to give more to these protracted, neglected crises, but we also need to give better. That means philanthropy must trust organizations that work directly in these areas, commit to flexibility in how funds are spent, and most important, treat Kakuma’s residents with the humanity they deserve.
The Kakuma Refugee Camp was established in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Throughout the years, the camp and the nearby Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement expanded to accommodate refugees from neighboring countries, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia. Its 255,000 refugees and asylum seekers come from more than 10 countries, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which manages the camp.
The drought has limited access to safe water in Kakuma, and the camp is about to experience its seventh failed rainy season. Some households get by on less than two gallons of water a week, while malnutrition rates surge and communities see a disturbing rise in child brides as families seek dowries to survive. Recent light rains caused flash floods that displaced more than 15,000 people within the camp. And still, every week, some 1,000 refugees arrive at the crowded reception centers, which have insufficient materials for shelters to house them.
Communities such as Kakuma are ravaged by the effects of climate change that they didn’t cause, as they flee conflicts they had no hand in. While mainstream media in the global north frequently covers climate change and its impending disruption to people’s daily lives, those already living in crisis remain hidden.
Meanwhile, chronically underresourced aid agencies such as the U.N. World Food Programme, are facing massive funding gaps as countries such as the United Kingdom and Norway slash their international aid allocations. The U.N. recently received $2.4 billion in pledges to help fund aid efforts in the Horn of Africa — far below the $7 billion requested. Grassroots organizations in the area also have difficulty accessing funds and navigating the complex humanitarian aid system, all while feeling the constraints of heavy compliance regulations and a lack of flexible, multiyear funding.
Organizations like ours see how these funding cuts exacerbate an already dire situation. Gender-based violence rises as families struggle for resources. Children skip school to wait at home in case the water taps are turned on. Our community-outreach workers go door-to-door to ensure that people do not slip through the cracks.
Other major emergencies, including the war in Ukraine, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and this year’s Turkey-Syria earthquakes, also divert attention and donations from Kakuma and all the other “Nowheres” around the world. But lack of attention does not amount to a lack of need or urgency. Philanthropy must fight the urge to look away.
For hundreds of thousands of people, Kakuma isn’t nowhere. It’s where they live and raise their families — many of whom are second and third generation — with limited freedom of movement and employment opportunities. It’s where children spend hours every day digging into dry riverbeds in search of water, filling five-gallon jerry cans that they somehow must transport home. It’s where girls are increasingly vulnerable to violence and sexual exploitation as they make this daily journey. It’s where young people and adults alike turn to potent home-brewed alcohol and sniffing glue to stem hunger pangs.
How to Make a Difference
Philanthropy can continue pretending that “Nowhere” doesn’t exist, stick its head in the sand, and insist that nothing can be done, or it can fund the work that will make a difference.
Funding for a new borehole, for example, can draw up subterranean water for 30,000 people, while additional support can be used to train local leaders in how to maintain the water system and develop sustainable solutions. Mental-health and psychosocial-support programs can help people develop the inner resources required to build a successful future for themselves and their families. Women- and girl-friendly programs can provide a haven for survivors of violence and a chance to rebuild their lives and contend with inevitable future crises.
To achieve this, donors must trust organizations that are working on the ground, provide funding that allows groups to pivot when a new crisis emerges, fund experienced staff, and cover core operational costs. Philanthropists have the power and the influence to raise awareness and to share the voices of those in affected communities who don’t get to join the global dialogue.
Above all, philanthropy must treat refugees in places such as Kakuma like people with futures to look forward to, not just harrowing pasts and harsh presents.
Because Kakuma is somewhere. It’s home to hundreds of thousands of resilient individuals who had no choice but to flee their homes. Let’s not pretend it’s nowhere.