The Sahel region of Western Africa is in a state of permanent food crisis, with more than a million children at risk of severe malnutrition say relief organizations Save the Children and World Vision. The main reason is not drought (which the Sahel is prone to) or a deficit of food but chronic poverty.
As World Vision’s emergencies director Paul Sitnam says in the BBC, “The poorest of the poor people… have virtually no access to any food that is available on the market because of their chronic poverty.”
Sitnam emphasized that simply handing out food cannot solve the issues for an area with endemic problems including crop shortages and political insecurity in neighboring countries or (in the case of Mali) in their own borders. The international community needs to actually commit to developing the region by, says Sitnam, “ensuring that there’s family cohesion, assuring that there’s education, assuring that there’s infrastructure, and that the social safety nets get to take care of children and their families in the times of crisis.”
The Sahel is located on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert and includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Chad.
At the end of July, Save the Children published a study that found that not only is malnutrition the underlying cause of death for 2.6 million children a year, but the number of children experiencing malnutrition has increased for the first time in a decade. The report also found that while there has been “massive progress” in reducing poverty and infant mortality and in providing education, but next to nothing in addressing malnutrition.
On August 12, the closing day of the London Olympics, the British government is hosting a hunger summit to “kickstart” world leaders’ effort to address hunger and malnutrition. With prices for corn and soy rising due to the US facing the worst drought in more than a century, the summit is well-timed and could be a welcome reality check after what may be called the controversies and excesses of the Games. Justin Forsyth, director of Save the Children, told the Guardian he hopes that a real commitment to ending malnutrition could be a legacy of the London Olympics as Beijing, Athens and Sydney found themselves with “new housing, sports arenas and urban regeneration.”
One doesn’t wish to downplay such hopeful goals but recent reports are that the Bird’s Nest Stadium designed by dissident artist Ai Weiwei for the Beijing 2008 Olympics has become an “abandoned museum piece.” It remains to be seen if real efforts can be made to fight hunger in the Sahel.
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