Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Moving Moolah, Somali style

Anyone out there guess the fastest, surest and cheapest way of transferring money these days? Western Union you say? Wrong. It's Hawala, and its likely to be for some time to come.

You haven't heard of it because you've never been in a foreign city and received a desperate call from the folks back home who need cash fast to buy an air ticket out, bury a body, pay for a wedding, repair a bombed house, or any one of the myriad emergencies that can strike your average Somali family.

This is how it works. You bring your money to a Hawala point or contact. He then contacts, either by phone or e-mail, an agent in the other location. The first agent confirms that money has been received for transfer, the second confirms that he has enough cash on hand to complete the transfer. If this is the case, a password is shared among the originator, the recipient and the two agents. The originator passes the password along to the recipient who then provides the second agent with the password to receive the money. The cash debt is settled later between the two money transfer agents, usually by using traditional banks to transfer funds to a central bank account, in a third country in the case of Somalia.

The fee is about three to five per cent, and the money is normally in the hands of the intended recipient within 24 hours. Incredible when you think of it, that some sophisticated systems can survive 20 years of bloody conflict, a tattered, battered, shattered infrastructure and the absence of any real rule of law. Money can fly over borders in seconds, evading the grubby fingers of customs officers or crooked postal workers. How? Because it works on honour, a word not normally associated with the banking system that we know and tolerate.

There's some dispute over the provenance of the word Hawala. The original Arabic means to change or transform, and when the word passed into Hindi it took on the meaning of "trust". And I remember buying a board game in Abidjan called "Awalé" which I was told meant "to share" in one of the local languages.)

Hawala exists in many parts of the world but is probably most famous - and successful - in Somalia where the World Bank (how sweetly that spoonerises!) even coined a name for it. Don't get excited, the name was invented by bankers after all, the prosaic "Somali Remittance Organisation".

Back in the days of BC (Before Children) Head Down Eyes Opener in Chief and myself broke bread together on a regular basis in Geneva, that bastion of world bankers. On one of those fine occasions we got a lesson in the Somali Remittance Organisation form a wily old Somali, with the standard issue impish grin and straggly beard so frequent back in Hamar.

Our friend, let's call him Hassan, even gave us a real time illustration of how it worked - cash was transferred in front of our eyes from the counter of an Irish bar to the fragrant African night, within an hour. It was a little piece of sorcery Hassan weaved for us. You couldn't help but imagine a knock on the door somewhere in downtown Mogadishu, hushed voices, a torch flitting over a face, a child crying out, a crackle of nearby gunfire, a handshake, and the relieved sigh from the woman of the house at the soft thud of notes hitting the table.

Sadly, that picture is being seen less and less in these straightened times. Remittances from overseas are 25 per cent down in the first quarter of 2009. This is seriously bad news for a country where the one million Somalis in the diaspora basically keep the country's economy - such as it is - afloat with remittances of up to US$1 billion. These funds - "money from America without writin for it" as we used to be known in Ireland, have kept a third of the population alive.

Some 3.4 million people are dependent on food aid in Somalia, where violence is on the up and where the worst drought in ten years is causing concern. Another 120,000 people fled the capital in May and the UN is warning of an emerging catastrophe. Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the country said: "this is a critical year for Somalia because of the potentially collapsing economy due to the drought," he said. "There is a real danger that Somalia can become more dependent on humanitarian assistance than ever before".

The UN is looking for almost a billion bucks for its operations in Somalia this year (ironic that it's almost the same sum that the diaspora has been sending home) but has only received one third of that appeal to date. (Some would say that even that response is a miracle, given the complexities of working in Somalia.)

I penned a few lines on leaving Somalia in June 1993 after the most intense six months of my life. They're still rattling round my skull - excuse the ultimate introspection of quoting myself:

Sometimes I see a star bleached white on blue

like bones in the ocean

and I hear your voice Mohammad Farah:

"Defend your freedom, your honour"

Sometimes I catch myself staring at a child with a baby in her arms

An old man atop a termite hill watching the tanks roll by

Blood and shit on main street

Nights of sweat and anguish as together we tore our hearts out

Was any of it worth it?

Whose hearts, souls, minds, bodies did any of us save?


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