The numbers are so huge they are almost impossible to comprehend. But 10,000 people will make their way across the border between Somalia and Kenya every month to join the 1.4 million who’ve already fled this war-ravaged country.
Many of them will go straight into the Dadaab refugee camp – now classed as the fourth largest city in Kenya – and live side-by-side with families who have been there for 20 years.
It’s against this backdrop that Chris Porter works. In his role as humanitarian adviser for DFID, the UK Department for International Development, he’s on the front line when it comes to deciding where our government’s foreign aid in Kenya and Somalia is spent.
‘Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world and I went up there a few weeks ago,’ says Chris, who is based in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city.
‘I met one family who had just fled from Mogadishu in Somalia, the week before.
They had travelled for eight days on the back of a truck with their children, one of whom was sick, to get away from the fighting. They had to leave their mother-in-law behind and started to get upset as they talked. That’s one of the key motivations of doing this job – there’s a very human cost behind this.’
The UK will triple its aid to Somalia over the next four years as part of a new package announced by the government at the beginning of this month. An average £63m a year will be spent until 2015. Somalia has suffered from 20 years of civil conflict and a severe drought, leaving millions of people dead, homeless or displaced.
But when budgets at home are being cut all the time, it’s inevitable that questions about how much the UK government should spend on foreign aid will be raised.
While education, healthcare, local government, defence and policing all face cutbacks that will threaten jobs and services, critics say we simply haven’t got billions of pounds to give away.
This month’s foreign aid review did see funding pulled from 16 countries – but the overall budget will be increased from £7bn to £11bn by 2015. In fact, foreign aid was one of only two budgets to be ring-fenced and the government says that’s necessary to protect the UK from terrorism, piracy and other security threats.
‘This is not just aid from Britain; it is aid for Britain too,’ argues International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.
‘Our aid to Somalia is helping to make Britain safer, because conflict doesn’t just claim innocent lives in Somalia, it also leads to international problems like piracy, migration and terrorism. None of these will be solved without tackling their root causes: ongoing instability and extreme poverty.’
It’s an argument Chris, from Fareham, understands. But for him there’s a more important reason why the UK must provide foreign aid.
‘We have a moral obligation to help the most vulnerable,’ he says. ‘We’re not talking about making people more comfortable, this is about keeping people alive.’
He adds: ‘Our Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell has said it’s for Britain and I get it, I agree with it. The importance of that message has become more necessary since the budget cuts, although it’s always been there to a certain extent.
‘But for me the real driver that I always defend first is that helping is a moral obligation because we are talking about the most basic stuff. There should be a minimum level that we do without even thinking about it.’
The aid programmes that Chris oversees will provide water, shelter, food and medical aid for 700,000 Somalis this year, including 65,000 children who will be treated for acute malnutrition and 13,000 pregnant women who will receive health care. In Kenya, his programmes will provide humanitarian relief to more than 150,000 people – including 200,000 refugees.
He moved to Kenya with his wife Anna and their children Ben, five, and Bronwen, two, in September and the family expects to stay for three years.
A lot of the foreign aid being spent in Somalia and Kenya is passed on to charities and non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam, to spend on individual projects but Chris’s role isn’t just about overseeing how the money is used.
As the government’s eyes and ears on the ground, he and his team also have a responsibility to engage with local people and decision-makers, primarily to understand the underlying issues, but also to push for change. In Kenya that means tackling corruption and educating people about voting rights.
Chris has worked for DFID on and off since 1998 and been at some of the world’s most recent humanitarian disasters, including the 2005 Pakistan earthquake. It can be a dangerous job and the suffering he sees is distressing, but the resilience of people amazes him.
‘I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel earth tremors in Pakistan, but I still remember the stories of the people themselves and that’s what I often come back to.
‘We need to be quite careful when we are going to these difficult situations not to make people feel like they have to tell us difficult stories. Sometimes they want to tell you and that’s the least we can do.’
He adds: ‘You see things you don’t know how you could cope with, like their children being washed out of their arms. I can’t begin to imagine what they feel but you reflect on your own family.
‘People are incredibly resilient and this gives you faith that things will work out, we can work it out.’
Growing up in Fareham, he went to Ranvilles Primary School and West Hill Park School in Titchfield. His mum and dad both served in the Royal Navy and his brother followed them into the service. But Chris, 38, decided to go in a different direction.
He says of his job: ‘It’s the best thing I could ever imagine doing. The reason I keep doing this work is that we can help.’