The world appears reluctant to open its wallets to relief organizations dedicated to saving the lives of Africa’s children until it’s official. They want the United Nations to declare a famine. Then they will pay attention. They will be moved and horrified by television images of children’s swollen bellies, stick limbs and sad, round eyes. Some will say, accusingly, Why didn’t you tell us sooner?
UNICEF is to be credited for its pre-emptive global effort to break this tragic cycle of paralysis and delayed response in the case of the Sahel.
Last week, the organization launched a fund-raising campaign for this region in northern Africa that stretches from Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Chad in the middle of the continent. One million children are currently at risk of dying of acute malnutrition. Families are being forced to sell their cattle and livestock and pull their children out of school to adapt to the crisis, caused by frequent droughts, rising food prices and, especially in Mali, political instability.
Called #SahelNOW, UNICEF’s campaign asks users of Facebook, Twitter and other social media to spread the word, and fund the organization, which has the technology, logistical ability and staff, to treat these children and help them recover from the reversible effects of severe, acute malnutrition. UNICEF needs about $120-million to tackle the crisis in Sahel, of which it has raised only one-quarter.
“In Somalia, we knew beforehand that something terrible was brewing but it wasn’t until it hit famine levels that people responded,” said David Morley, the CEO of UNICEF Canada, referring to last year’s famine.
In early spring of 2011, relief workers in Somalia were warning of the impending crisis, to little effect. Once famine was declared in July, Canadians responded generously, raising $70-million, monies that were matched by the government. By then, more than 11 million people were in urgent need of food, water and emergency health care.
This situation is now being replicated in the Sahel. Ottawa has given $5-million for emergency nutrition. But UNICEF needs the private sector and individual Canadians to contribute, too. Ten per cent of children under five in the Sahel have biceps that measure the size of a toonie – a key marker of acute malnutrition. When this number rises to 30 per cent, it will meet the technical definition of a famine. But it should not have to reach this stage.
People should be galvanized to act to prevent the tragedy, not just wait for it to happen.