Fighting famine is ineffective aid

It’s popular in the press to judge a charity by its efficiency. Donors want to know whether their money is being used effectively, and journalists play a valuable part in keeping organizations accountable.

Without downplaying the important role the media play in this respect, I believe the public’s concerns about effective aid would be better served if the press also paid attention to slow-building disasters early on -- before they begin claiming lives. Inefficient responses to disasters can cost as much as 80 times more than a well-planned early response.

Magfoula fears for the life of her son, Teyib. He was already saved from starvation once, but the latest drought in West Africa has put him at severe risk again. (Photo: Jonathan Bundu/World Vision)

No one would wait until a leak had caused damage throughout a house before repairing the roof. Too often, however, journalists wait until they can show images of starving children before alerting the public of the need to respond to an easily-foreseen disaster. Charities depend on an informed public, who generously responds to the needs they see around the world.

When Americans learn of an impending disaster, they will respond. But they only hear about these issues through the media.

At this moment, the possibility of a famine in West Africa is evident to those of us working feverishly to try to prevent this crisis. Unfortunately, news of the pending disaster is nearly nonexistent to anyone on the outside. Across the Sahel, the arid belt south of the Sahara, families are eating up the last of their food. The October harvest, should it come, is a long way away.

Those of us who have watched similar disasters come and go know that a full-scale response to this crisis today is immensely more effective and less expensive than if the international community only begins to respond after children are dying.

Just last year, despite early warnings, the world waited while a food crisis turned into famine in parts of the Horn of Africa. As many as 100,000 died over the following months -- nearly a third of them children under age 5, because the international response was too slow.

Jan Egeland, the former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an early response to the 2005 Niger food crisis would have cost $1 per day to prevent malnutrition among children there. When an international response was finally underway, however, it cost $80 per child per day.

There is no technical reason for a famine to surprise us. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, funded by USAID, has been able to successfully predict regions where food vulnerability is increasing and where famine is likely. The system sent its first alert about the Horn of Africa 11 months before the United Nations declared famine in parts of that region.

The signs of impending crisis in West Africa are clear. The region is suffering from drought. Prices of food staples, such as millet and sorghum, increased as much as 96 percent between October and December 2011.

Mariama Mbojah and her daughter. (Photo: Jonathan Bundu/World Vision)

Mariama Mbojah, a woman being helped by World Vision, plows her field with her bare hands, as she can no longer afford a plow, hoe, or shovel. Like many other families now, Mariama gathers a wild desert fruit. Eating the fruit requires soaking it for six days, pounding it to a pulp, and then boiling it for hours.

“We just eat it to hold our bellies during the night to see the next morning,” says Mariama.

Efforts today will save lives. Planting and irrigating crops, drilling wells, providing drought-resistant seed, and working with smallholder farmers are proven ways to prevent a drought from becoming a famine.

During last year’s food crisis in the Horn of Africa -- a region the size of the eastern United States -- World Vision was working in 87 areas. While the people in those areas were not insulated from the effects of the two-year drought, no one died because of it. As we work over the long term in these communities, we can improve farming techniques; build a healthier ecology so that soil is fertile and rainfall is more productive; and enhance economic growth to help families afford food, even when prices spike.

Since last year, the United States has already spent $270 million in response to the food crisis in the Sahel. That number will skyrocket if a full-blown famine erupts. Acting now will not only save lives but will be a much more efficient use of donor and taxpayer funds.

Saving lives after the outbreak of famine is, of course, critical. But it is ineffective aid. Those of us who care about efficiency and effectiveness in our humanitarian institutions must advocate for responding to food crises long before images of starving children ever hit the nightly news.

Join World Vision as we work to save lives in West Africa now -- before famine is declared. Pray for the children, families, and communities there who are suffering at the hands of brutal drought and food shortages, and pray that the international community will see their distress while there's still time.

Make a one-time donation to help provide life-saving food and care to children suffering from hunger and malnutrition in places like West Africa's Sahel region. Your gift will help deliver interventions like emergency food aid, clean water, nutritional training, agricultural support, and more.

Contact your members of Congress today and voice your support for the International Affairs Budget, which funds critical humanitarian programs that fight hunger and disease in places like West Africa. Making up just 1.4 percent of the overall federal budget, there are few other places in the U.S. budget where dollars translate so directly to lives saved.

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