David Morley is president and CEO of UNICEF Canada.
Eight-month-old Ibrahim’s frail body rests on his grandmother’s lap as he is brought into a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. He’s suffering from severe malnutrition. His grandmother explains that their family didn’t have enough food to eat, so Ibrahim’s mother could not breastfeed him properly. The situation is tragic as Ibrahim is among nearly 45 per cent of all children under age five in his country who suffer from wasting, the most life-threatening form of malnutrition. But it is even more devastating to see how the world chooses to look away from this acute crisis.
Climate change, conflict and COVID-19 – the deadly trifecta has helped unleash the world’s worst global hunger and severe malnutrition crisis in a generation. In the Horn of Africa region, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia are seeing their worst period of drought in decades. For 1.7 million children in the region, this has led to fatal levels of wasting. This form of severe malnutrition doesn’t only make children thin but also leaves them with a weakened immune system, making them vulnerable to other diseases.
Globally, one in five deaths among children under age five is attributed to wasting, making it one of the top threats to child survival. The vast majority of these children live in low- and middle-income countries with fragile or struggling health systems. These systems are unable to detect severe malnutrition early enough to prevent children from becoming extremely sick.
The war in Ukraine dealt a brutal blow, pushing hunger and severe malnutrition to emergency and catastrophic levels – especially for women and children. Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest commodities producers, contributing a significant percentage the world’s wheat, fertilizer and vegetable oils, among other items. With supply lines blocked, world food prices have skyrocketed to all-time highs. This makes nutritious food difficult to afford in many in countries like Somalia, which imports 90 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Escalating fuel prices and logistic costs have made transporting humanitarian aid to populations in need more expensive.
Efficient and cost-effective treatments do exist, like Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), a peanut paste with high nutritional value that allows malnourished children to gain weight quickly. But the cost of RUTF is projected to soar by 16 per cent over the next six months.
UNICEF Canada, Action Against Hunger Canada, World Vision Canada, Results Canada, Plan International Canada and Save the Children Canada, are organizations that are working together to spread the message about the dire and rising urgency to combat the hunger crisis. As members of humanitarian organizations working on this issue for decades, we know that the resources needed to scale up the response and prevent the further spread of hunger are inadequate.
This is where Canada needs to step up and commit its fair share to fill this gap. Beyond food aid, a financial commitment of $600-million from Canada would go a long way in averting catastrophe in many of the hardest-hit countries. It would put Canada on equal footing with our peers as a leading humanitarian funder.
The G7′s recent statement on Strengthening Anticipatory Action in Humanitarian Assistance highlights deep concern around the growing problem of global food security and nutrition, and recognizes the need to facilitate early action and prevent the worst. Building on it, Canada has the opportunity at the G7 summit this month to support bold action to help avert this crisis. Our country has a multidecade track record of bipartisan nutrition support – and results. Canada’s investments in low-cost, high-impact nutrition interventions have helped save millions of lives and broken intergenerational cycles of poverty.
Nutrition lays the foundation for immunity and resilience. Not investing in nutrition now could leave countries vulnerable to future shocks and health crises and make recovering from COVID-19 longer and more complex. Mobilizing resources for prevention, early detection and treatment for severe malnutrition has to be a priority before children like Ibrahim suffer or die as we look away. Canada must effectively champion the global action to address this crisis and ensure that famine prevention and response is a core part of the 2022 G7 agenda.
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