Food politics: Part two
6 April 2017
Do you ever feel mentally exhausted when you turn on the news or pick up a paper? I do. Just a month ago, the United Nations said we were facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in four countries in the world. In Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, no longer is the shadow of starvation looming; instead, death caused by malnutrition is becoming a daily occurrence. ‘Food crisis’ does not feel an adequate term to sum up the human misery that is the picture of famine. The UN says that to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe, the international response needs to be $4.4 billion before the end of July. $4.4 billion. I cannot even begin to compute that number. The needs are overwhelming, with millions facing famine, disease, and death.
The situation is not hopeless though. I do not think I could do this job if I thought it was. As a Christian, I feel we are called to do ‘all we can’ in the face of overwhelming odds. While $4.4 billion is needed internationally, just £3.50 (less than the cost of a posh cup of coffee and slice of cake) is needed to provide food aid to one desperately hungry person in Yemen for a week. When we all do all we can, then change happens. Generous churches and individuals have already raised over £340,000 for the East Africa Famine Appeal. Reading the letters and emails from supporters, who want to do something to bring change in this desperate situation, is deeply moving. I am privileged to work for an organisation where I am reminded that compassion for the stranger is alive and well.
All We Can is working in Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The reasons for the current crises in these countries are complex, and every situation is different. While these four famines, or near-famines, do have similarities, they also have different origins, impacts and needs. Local factors are at play, with each country prone to its own combination of civil conflict, weak governance, poor infrastructure, and failing markets. Somalia has also been subject to a fierce drought that has swept the country. Regardless of the causes, the consequences are severe in all three countries. In each of these three countries, food insecurity often leads to malnutrition, frequently affecting first the most vulnerable: children under five, and pregnant and breastfeeding women. Women the same age as me who are just trying to live their lives with dignity, and children the same age as my youngest niece. These are children who should be playing and growing – not crying for food and dying in their mother’s arms.
In December, Mary, a mother of four in South Sudan, visited a clinic run by one of All We Can’s humanitarian aid partners. The sorghum fields around her home had become yellow, dry and unproductive. Everyone in her village had hoped for a good harvest, which never came. Her hopes were dashed by the scorching sun, dry spells and then floods. On top of that, unaffordable food prices made it almost impossible for her to buy the food she needed to survive. Mary had already lost one of her children and desperately sought help when her baby Deng became acutely malnourished and weak.
When Deng was assessed by a health worker he was deemed to be severely malnourished and was entered into a life-saving nutrition programme. Encouragingly, after only three weeks he began to show marked improvements in both his health and weight. While Mary and Deng would still be living in extremely challenging circumstances, his life had been saved. Mary said, “The one thing that makes me very happy is seeing that my children are happy and playing around. If the children are having food, I’m happy.” Mary’s story is such a simple one – she is a mother who wants to protect her children. I read her story, thinking about my nieces and nephew and how fraught with anxiety I would be if my family faced even a few of the problems Mary and her children do.
When just £10 could provide life-saving nutrition for an acutely malnourished child like Deng, suddenly the numbers become more manageable, and the difference we can make is tangible. I have put photographs of children like Deng on my work screensaver and on my office pin-board, to remind me that what we are doing together is making a difference. The need is huge, but so is our capacity to love, give, and respond collectively.
Thank you to every person who has given to this appeal so far. Please keep doing all you can.
In Part One of this blog series I explored the connection between humans and the food we eat,
In Part Three of this blog series I will be focusing on what food security means in three of the countries we are working in.
Images: Albert Gonzalez Farran/Medair