World Food Day in a time of famine (Blog Action Day)

World Vision New Zealand's nutrition specialist Briony Stevens has just returned from East Africa. She blogs about her experience as part of today's Blog Action Day, dedicated this year to discussion on the topic of food given that today is also World Food Day.

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World Food Day seems such a bizarre concept when you’re standing in an over-crowded refugee camp in East Africa where there is a distinct lack of anything edible. When you’re measuring the circumference of a child’s upper arm as a means of determining how malnourished they are. When you watch a mother continue to clutch her baby to her, long after he or she has passed away.

World Food day in a time of famine | World Vision blog

In the Horn of Africa, a baby's upper arm circumference is measured to confirm severe malnutrition. ©2011 Jon Warren/World Vision

World Food Day is meant to be a ‘celebration’ of the founding date of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (16 October). This year’s theme is the rising cost of food -- something which single-handedly pushed 70-million people into extreme poverty in the past financial year, according to the World Bank.

In New Zealand, food prices have risen (as they have elsewhere in the world) 14 per cent over the past three years. That undoubtedly will have caused some people to struggle, but there is a marked difference between struggling and dying.

For example, if you think the price of milk is steep try contending with a 240 per cent rise in the cost of cereal; part of the staple diet in East Africa. The reason it costs so much? Three seasons of failed rains. We have no such problem in the Land of Plenty.

I’ve just returned from a month in drought-ravaged East Africa. You see, despite the fact the media seems to have lost interest, the crisis there is continuing, worsening in fact. Famine may have only been officially declared in six regions of Somalia but Kenya and Ethiopia are also battling drought and subsequent food insecurity. To add to its troubles, Ethiopia in particular is not only contending with the survival of its own people, but a steady stream of refugees from bordering nations as well. Hungry Somalis yes, but also thousands of Sudanese, due to increasing violence in the Blue Nile state.

During a visit to a transit center for Sudanese refugees, I met Gula Harun. Gula is three-years-old but starvation makes her look much younger. Her bicep has a circumference of just 10.7cm, a sign of severe acute malnutrition. Her guardian, and that of her two sisters, is their seven-year-old brother. An unimaginable burden for someone so young. The children’s father escorted them to the border, a 23 day journey, before returning to Sudan to fight. Their mother ventured back soon after to see if the situation had improved. She is yet to return.

World Food Day in a time of famine | World Vision blog

Gula and her brother. ©2011 World Vision

Transit centers are truly awful places. Despite the inference, there is no ‘center’ to speak of. Just a continuous stream of desperate people balancing possessions in bags on their heads, cradling malnourished children in their arms, followed by the occasional scrawny dog or goat. At least at refugee camps people can access nutritious rations, clean water, medical help, latrines and shelter. No such services exist at transit centers. Those who arrive here are encouraged by government officials to either register as refugees and go to a camp (forgoing their freedom of movement) or return to their own country.

I don’t mean to paint a rosy picture of refugee camps, but the simple fact is they at least offer some chance at survival; providing cholera, measles and other diseases commonly associated with over-crowding don’t break out.

One of the most shocking aspects in all of this to me is that the situation in Ethiopia could be much worse. Lessons learned and safety nets put in place after the famine in the 80s have admirably gone a long way. But the fact remains this current crisis is without precedent. 12.4 million people are affected. The UN estimates 750,000 Somalis alone will be dead by the end of the year.

New Zealanders have been exceedingly generous, as always, in regards to World Vision’s East Africa/Horn of Africa funds. They’ve contributed in excess of NZ$1 million. But the harsh reality is our money just doesn’t go as far as it once did. Yes, as World Food Day’s theme would suggest, rising food prices are to blame but so are increased fuel costs, wayward economies/exchange rates and a sense of emergency fatigue. All of that is likely to have contributed to the US$1 billion short-fall the UN is currently faced with in terms of dealing with this emergency.

I’m likely to travel back to East Africa in the coming weeks and while I want to do anything I can to assist, the truth is NGOs like World Vision can only continue the fight to save lives with the backing of the international community. Without it, Gula and her siblings really don’t have any hope. It is a horrendous comparison, but like a pint of milk, their survival comes at a price.

This post originally appeared on the World Vision New Zealand Team Blog "World Food Day in a time of famine".

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