Diaspora & NGO Partner to Help Somalia, Interview with Daniel Wordsworth

I recently had the opportunity to interview with Daniel Wordsworth, President of the American Refugee Committee (ARC) about his organization’s “I AM A STAR” program, which serves as a grassroots platform to address famine relief for Somalia by connecting the Somali community with the global community.  “I AM A STAR” uses an innovative and collaborative approach to engage the Somali diaspora community and to convene a diverse audience towards humanitarian relief in Somalia.

The ARC is headquartered in metropolitan region that is home to the United States’ largest population of Somali immigrants and Americans of Somali descent: Minneapolis, Minnesota. Working with the local diaspora community, the ARC developed the “I AM A STAR” program 2010. ARC’s model is based on a simple premise: “A country’s global diaspora is not a lost resource but, rather, the greatest asset available in building a humanitarian response in that country.”

Leveraging a range of multimedia tools which include videos, social media, and merchandising, the program has raised awareness and directed support for the people of Somalia. Rather than seeking one-time donations, this campaign utilizes a long-term engagement strategy with those who seek to make a difference in the country. “I AM A STAR” provides a toolkit of innovative ideas for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide to help facilitate grassroots mobilization and results.

“I AM A STAR” has benefited nearly 200,000 people in Somalia by providing them with clean water, sanitation, employment, and healthcare programs. At the same time, it has built a community of support for Somalia, through the engagement of more than 35,000 people from 65 countries in person and online. The campaign has engaged Somali communities in cities across the United States and in numerous countries, including Norway, Sweden, Qatar, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. It has also leveraged almost $7 million in funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations (UN), and private sector donors (the largest private donations have come from businesses in Somalia). It has further mobilized over 1,150 volunteers and held some 130 events around the world.

This year, ARC’s “I AM A STAR” program was selected for the prestigious Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation from among 600 different organizations. Accepting the award on the ARC’s behalf, Wordsworth said, “This award is a real tribute to the incredible work of the global Somali diaspora, who have co-created “I AM A STAR”—and also to the tens of thousands of people around the globe who have taken creative action to help Somalia. There are people all around the world who are ready to work together across geographic and cultural distances to help tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges. This represents an amazing challenge and opportunity to all of us in the social sector.”


How did the “I AM A STAR” program begin?

In May 2009, I was interviewed by a local radio station in Minnesota, and I was asked to name places where the American Refugee Committee (ARC) would like to expand its work, and I answered, Somalia. I explained that we wanted to work in Somalia because ARC recognized it as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and we really wanted to do something to change that. Afterwards, we received several phone calls and visits from members of the Somali community who challenged ARC on my interview response. They felt Somalia had been let down by the international community and therefore wanted to do something to help. We decided to try a new kind of program. It would be a shared product—half owned by ARC and half owned by the Somali community in Minnesota and the people of Somalia.

When we agreed to this partnership, the Somali diaspora created a council that represented different regions of Somalia. We worked intensively with this council for over a year and regularly met with community leaders to develop a better understanding of the Somali culture and community.


How does the “I AM A STAR” program work?

“I AM A STAR” has several components:

Shared Values: The Somali community and ARC recognized that both groups—the diaspora and international community—were not doing enough to make a difference in the lives of the people of Somalia. Together, we focused our efforts on humanitarian issues.

Leverage Strengths:  As an established NGO, ARC has the technical expertise to support efforts on the ground. The Somali diaspora council has social and cultural insight into the Somali experience, which we otherwise lacked.

A Here-There Aspect: It is difficult to differentiate the experience of a person in Somalia and a Somali-American. We were therefore forced to think broadly about issues that made a difference and also address the needs of the Somali people here in Minnesota.  As a result, both experiences were necessary to meet the needs in both areas.

Strong Bridging Element: The Somali diaspora has acted as a bridge to help ARC work with the Somali community (both in the U.S. and in Somalia). At the same time ARC has helped connect the Somali community with the broader international community.


What methods do you use to engage the Somali community?

ARC employs three main methods to engage the Somali community:

  1. Co-design: We’ve used focus groups and individual interviews to help design a response to meet the needs of the Somali community. Facebook has also been instrumental in bringing together people from all over the world.
  2. Co-implement: Together, we have mobilized professional volunteers from the Somali diaspora in the U.S. and Canada such as doctors, nurses, and social workers.
  3. Radical Transparency: Since the program’s inception, the Somali community has demanded that they be kept informed of the details of what was being worked on. This means that we at the ARC needed to be fully transparent. We’ve created an open door environment here at ARC where anyone from the community is welcome to share their thoughts and opinions. This mutual accountability and trust helped determine the design of program.


What makes “I AM A STAR” effective at reaching its target audience?

By finding and creating a shared system, we were able to form a strong partnership that was acceptable to the values of ARC and the Somali community. Trust is very important. We have created an environment where there is mutual trust between ARC and the Somali community. In addition, we embarked on an intensive research system and hired a reputable human-centered design firm to design the engagement process.


What challenges has “I AM A STAR” faced?

We needed to change our thought processes to effectively run a shared program with the Somali community. We initially struggled with the idea of allowing the broader community to engage in the program—but it really hasn’t been a problem at all. Instead, engaging with the diaspora community has greatly enriched the program. Security challenges cannot be ignored either.


Is the “I AM A STAR” program sustainable?

In the end, the program’s sustainability will depend on the energy of the Somali people and the degree to which the program meets the needs they have. The Somali community has so far displayed a lot of commitment and pride, and we are carried by that energy.


Does ARC plan to replicate “I AM A STAR” with another diaspora community?

We are currently working with the Congolese community. It is a smaller diaspora population, but they are very committed, and ARC is excited to replicate “I AM A STAR” with them.


What advice can you offer to other diaspora communities who wish to provide humanitarian relief in their country of heritage?

I cannot speak to a diaspora community that is themselves mobilizing their own people with their own resources and expertise. However, I will say that finding an organization that is willing to co-create a program will go a long way. Finally, diaspora communities have to be the driving forces of the initiative with time and passion and not just resources.



About the Author: Susan Elegba is a Program Coordinator in the Secretary’s Office of the Global Partnership Initiative at the United States Department of State. She earned a Masters Degree in International Development from American University’s School of International Service and a B.A. from the SUNY Binghamton.


The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of the author and its ideas and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of International diaspora Engagement Alliance, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Migration Policy Institute, or any of their partners.

About Susan Elegba

Susan Elegba is a Program Coordinator in the Secretary’s Office of the Global Partnership Initiative at the United States Department of State. She earned a Masters Degree in International Development from American University’s School of International Service and a B.A. from the SUNY Binghamton.