CWS responds to hunger in Africa as hunger summit begins in London

For more than a year, Church World Service has been responding to needs in the Horn of Africa; in addition, it now is responding to an increasingly worrisome humanitarian emergency in the Sahel, a vast African region south of the Sahara desert. Maurice A. Bloem, CWS's deputy director and head of programs, discusses his recent humanitarian trip to Burkina Faso.

People in Burkina Faso and across Africa's Sahel region are in the midst of a severe food crisis. CWS and its partner Christian Aid are focusing on food assistance to help more than 83,000 people who are affected. Photo: Christian Aid

The end of the 2012 Olympics in London on Sunday marks the end of one event but the beginning of another. British Prime Minister David Cameron will host a day-long "hunger summit" with humanitarian groups, representatives of African nations, other world leaders and even Olympic athletes, the Guardian newspaper reports.

One focus of the event, to be held at the prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, will be on crises in Africa's Sahel region and the Horn of Africa. Those living in the two regions face overlapping crises of hunger and malnutrition, rising food prices, increasing population density and climate change. Some estimates say that 200 million in the two regions are "food insecure," the Guardian reports.

For more than a year, Church World Service has been responding to needs in the Horn of Africa; in addition, it now is responding to an increasingly worrisome humanitarian emergency in the Sahel, a vast African region south of the Sahara desert.

One root of the problem there is recent drought, which is affecting the production of crops, resulting in food shortages. Exacerbating the problem is political unrest, particularly in Mali, where more than 167,000 people have been displaced internally. Another 205,000 from Mali now are refugees who have fled to nearby countries, including Burkina Faso.

CWS and its partner Christian Aid are focusing much of their work on food assistance to help more than 83,000 people in Burkina Faso, Niger and Senegal, as well as Mali. Among the work being done is the distribution of nutrition packs containing locally purchased food items, to malnourished children and their mothers.

CWS-supported work is also supporting long-term interventions that include providing farmers with seeds, tools and animal fodder, supporting community cash-for-work projects to control erosion, subsidizing rice sales by local farmers and promoting sustainable livestock management.

Maurice A. Bloem, CWS's deputy director and head of programs, just returned from a humanitarian trip to Burkina Faso with other CWS staff members. Here are excerpts of an interview with Bloem by CWS staffer Chris Herlinger.

Herlinger: What are the essentials we need to know about this situation?

Bloem: The situation is not good, and the problems of the war and drought combined are making for a very difficult dynamic. The food security situation is particularly critical because there are so many elements at play: the ecosystem is already fragile in the region. Then you add the problems of hunger, growing populations, rising food prices and climate change. It's a deadly combination.

The rains started too late this year to really make a big difference in this year's crop-growing season, and it has not been good overall. And unlike the Horn of Africa, which weathered a severe drought last year, and is still struggling this year, there are not sufficient structures, or "coping mechanisms" in place in the Sahel to respond to needs internally. Of course, people within the affected countries are working very hard to solve this, but it is very, very tough situation.

Herlinger: So, a cornerstone for any humanitarian response is to strengthen "local capacity," right?

Bloem: Yes. One of the things we are working with Christian Aid on is the expansion of community gardens – which are called "market gardens" there – which can provide food for those growing it but also bring in "more to market," so that there can be an expansion of both food and also needed livelihoods, particularly for women.

That program tells a bigger story, because communities that have developed these programs – and our partners have worked with them for more than three year now – are doing much better in achieving food security than those where we just started providing emergency food aid. Where there are long-standing programs, there clearly is more hope. People talk more optimistically about the future. They also are more confident and ambitious for their families, with hopes that they will send their children to school. They see a better future for themselves.

Herlinger: Describe what you saw. Paint a picture for us.

Bloem: As I mentioned before, the ecosystem is very fragile in that part of the world (and it getting worse due to climate change), and people have to work hard – very hard – on the soil to make it work. It's an area where, if you don't work the land, you work in the gold mines. It's a very, very tough place in many ways, and this was even before the drought. So, it has made an even tougher situation for the country's poorest people, who are already living on the edge.

Then, although malnutrition is getting some attention now, it actually is often forgotten because the signs are not visible until the situation is very acute. Yet, while we tried to talk with the community about how we could try to improve the quality of the diet, we came across not just issues of knowledge, but also of availability of food. For example, people in the region say that if you give a child an egg, the child will become a thief. By that they mean if a child becomes used to eating an egg, they will like it very much and will want to eat more of them – but eggs are an income source and the people there believe they should bring in money instead of being fed to the children.

That has to be reversed, so that people can all enjoy a good, sustainable diet – which is why our focus is on ways to develop access to a more stable food supply – locally based, if at all possible. The bottom line is the need for better food security and nutrition security, both of which are particularly crucial for mothers and children.

Another issue is water. There isn't enough of it there, and yet the region also faces challenges with floods on occasion. CWS's East Africa program has experience with water catchment, which is why we plan to work with partners in the Sahel to develop ways so that rain water can be used and conserved as a resource. And of course, the issues of water and food are linked; they have worked at in a holistic way, the way so many issues need to be approached today.

Herlinger: What can come out of the "hunger summit"?

Bloem: With the upcoming hunger summit happening this Sunday, I have heard certain organizations say that our approaches towards malnutrition need to change from treatment to prevention, but that's only partially true. We need to do three things: First, ensure that children have the proper start in life – the theme of the First 1,000 Days campaign – and this would include therapeutic feeding treatments.

Second, strengthening Africa's smallholder farmers and agricultural productivity, like we do via our community gardens. And we need to remember that the gardens can't just be a rural phenomena; there are growing urban problems as well as a rising urban population who are also struggling to feed their families. In the countryside, people can at least grow some of their own crops and vegetables. But in towns and cities, the majority of people need money to access food. As the price of staples rises, many are finding they simply are unable to earn enough to money to meet their needs. So we need to focus on gardens in urban areas, as well. The third thing is that we seriously need to look at our global food systems including issues like trade policies, speculation, food waste and sustainable consumption.

That's a tall order. But in the spirit of international cooperation – the spirit of the Olympics – these problems can ultimately be solved.

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