By Carol Morgan, Regional Director, Concern Worldwide
On a recent visit to a camp in Juba, South Sudan, overcrowded with those fleeing conflict, I watched children skipping rope in a small patch between makeshift tents in the carefree way that children can have, even in warzones. I listened to some children, a bit older and more serious, talk about their desire to return to school once fighting ends.
Famine targets children first. I knew even then that without significant and timely donor help, inside sixty days these children would still not be in school. Instead, they would be much quieter and more hungry. Their lives would be in greater danger with the specters of famine and now also cholera looming on the horizon. Children deserve better.
Three weeks later, I’m in Oslo, Norway, attending a major donor conference for South Sudan. International donors are pledging $600 million in aid to South Sudan. While this is in addition to the $500 million already pledged, it still falls far short of the $1.8 billion needed to avert the famine threatening the country.
And whether this $600 million actually materializes is another issue. The track record of donors fully honoring the pledges they make at such conferences is checkered. It may prove to be that far less funding is actually made available.
Unless these pledges are met and the $700 million shortfall addressed, more than a third of South Sudan’s population will be on the brink of starvation by the end of 2014, according to UN officials.
But we need more than money to stop this famine in its tracks. We need security to improve so our staff can work safely, we need better logistics support so that we can collect and distribute food and essential supplies, and we need better protection of civilian populations so that life can begin to go back to normal.
Famine is not a sudden collapse in the level of available food. We know when it is coming. The warning signs are clear. We always have time to prevent it if we move quickly enough.
Now is that time.
These clear warning signs were ignored in 1998, when famine brought the population of Bahr al-Ghazal in the western sector of South Sudan to its knees. Bahr al-Ghazal, with floodplains and riverbanks, has the potential to be a food-secure region. But heading into 1998, a poor growing season fueled by El Nino and coupled with displacement due to fighting set the conditions for a worsening — and predictable — crisis.
Then, some of the aid community sought to alert donor nations early, recognizing the need to scale up both staff and operations. But the extent of the coming catastrophe was either not fully comprehended or simply ignored. By early summer, between 50 and 100 people were reported to be dying daily. Children accounted for nearly 60 percent of the deaths.
Once donors understood, once they saw the desperation and the stick limbs that bring shame to those who are eating every day, they met and even exceeded the appeal target. Given the few months of lag that occur between money and relief, however, tens of thousands of people — the estimated toll is put at about 70,000 — died from hunger-related causes before enough aid could arrive.
The need to act as soon as warning signs are seen is not the only lesson to be learned from 1998. Even once the donor community moved into high gear in Bahr al-Ghazal, the ongoing conflict disrupted the distribution of food. Supplies reached the most vulnerable and needy only after pressure from the international community resulted in a cease-fire that was agreed to on July 15, 1998. This came ten months after the Sudanese government had warned the conflict was likely to cause famine.
The history of Bahr al-Ghazal reverberates today. We still have a window to prevent famine in the world’s youngest country. But it is narrowing. Donors must pledge even more to save lives, and they must follow through on those pledges as quickly as possible so that relief agencies can meet needs before they become overwhelming.
But the critical ingredient to preventing or minimizing famine in South Sudan is resolving the conflict. The country became independent from Sudan in 2011 amid a wave of optimism. Violence broke out in December of last year after a long power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. The resulting flight of those who should be planting now has pushed South Sudan to this point.
The single greatest need is for the international community to put effective pressure on the conflicting parties to bring them meaningfully and with resolve to the negotiating table. South Sudan’s leaders, world leaders and the donors must act together now for the future of the young country and its children.
Carol Morgan is the regional director for the Central Africa region for Concern Worldwide, where she oversees all emergency response and development programs. She has also served as Country Director for Concern in Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda and is a registered nurse and midwife.
About Concern Worldwide
Concern Worldwide is an international, non-governmental humanitarian organization dedicated to reducing extreme poverty, with approximately 3,000 personnel working in 25 of the world‘s poorest countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Concern Worldwide targets the root causes of extreme poverty through programs in health, education, livelihoods and microfinance, HIV and AIDS, and emergency response, directly reaching more than 6.5 million people. For more information, please visit concernusa.org or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.
All photos provided by Concern Worldwide.