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How to address the root causes of food insecurity and child malnutrition ?

Photo credit: MSF (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova)

Mothers feed their children therapeutic food at MSF’s outpatient therapeutic feeding center in Bokoro, Chad, where MSF teams are responding to a fourth malnutrition crisis in five years.

Is the food crisis for children still unfolding ?

By Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem

University of Ghent – Belgium

Drought and Desertification Consultant

https://desertification.wordpress.com

In December 2011, I posted some comments on a publication entitled “UNICEF CHIEF URGES ACTION TO STOP UNFOLDING CRISIS FOR CHILDREN IN THE SAHEL” (https://desertification.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/unicef-chief-urges-action-to-stop-unfolding-crisis-for-children-in-the-sahel-un-news/)

Today, I wonder if any changes in that situation have been registered.  Please read my former comments and today’s conclusions.

Which way would you go to stop an unfolding food crisis for children?

1997-12-02-General view 02 of a community garden in Niou (Burkina Faso) - (Photo WVC).
1997-12-02-General view 02 of a community garden in Niou (Burkina Faso) – (Photo WVC).

A food crisis can be stopped in different ways : with therapeutic food or with locally produced food. The former should certainly be used in cases of acute malnutrition, the latter needs to be more sustainable, e.g. by installing family gardens and school gardens. One can choose between expensive, curing emergency situations that don’t offer a sustainable solution and the much cheaper production of fresh food by the local people themselves.  What would you choose?

In the publication mentioned above, UNICEF’s Executive Director Anthony Lake “called today on the global community to take action to prevent one million children in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa from becoming severely malnourished.“  He said: “We must begin at once to fill the pipeline with life-sustaining supplies to the region before it is too late.” and “underscored the urgency to act before the ‘lean season’ when food runs out due to inadequate rain or poor harvests, which can start as early as March in some of the countries across the Sahelian belt.

I fully agree that UNICEF and its partners must be prepared to get sufficient amounts of ready-to-use therapeutic foods to treat severe acute malnutrition.  I also agree on “each child has the right to survive, to thrive and to contribute to their societies.

Indeed, “we must not fail them”!

However, the real question is if the best way of solving the problem of child malnutrition is getting sufficient therapeutic foods to intervene when the need increases.  Or, could it be that a well-prepared programme of vegetable and fruit production by the Sahelian families themselves is a better cure?

2007 - One of the family gardens in a refugee camp in S. W. Algeria (Photo WVC)
2007 – One of the family gardens in a refugee camp in S. W. Algeria (Photo WVC)

One may doubt about the feasibility of such a programme, but knowing that UNICEF itself was very successful with its own “Family gardens project for the Sahrawis families in the Sahara desert of Algeria“ (2005-2007), there can’t be any doubt anymore.  If family gardens, school gardens and hospital gardens can be productive in the Algerian desert, they can certainly be in the Sahel, where a better rainfall offers more chances to use the minimum of water needed (see the well-known best practices).

It should not be extremely difficult to accept that it is better to produce fresh food and fruits for the children in the threatened countries of the Sahel (like everywhere on this world!) than to have to spend billions of dollars at purchasing therapeutic foods for malnourished children.

Yes, “we must not fail them“, and we will surely not fail them by offering them chances to take care of their own kitchen gardens and school gardens.

1998-02-A school garden in Niamey (Niger) - (Photo WVC).
1998-02-A school garden in Niamey (Niger) – (Photo WVC).

In the drylands, there are already lots of successful small gardens.  One has the necessary knowledge and technical skills to duplicate these “best practices” wherever we want, even in the desert (see Algeria).  Who would still hesitate to take initiatives to gradually “submerge” the Sahel with small family gardens, school gardens and hospital gardens?  And let us not forget the successes booked at the global level with container and vertical gardening.

If there is “a pipeline to be filled”, it should not be filled with food, but with the necessary materials to create small kitchen gardens galore.

Shall we continue to appeal on “solidarity” for raising billions of dollars for responding time after time to the successive periods of food crisis in the drylands?  Or shall we, once and for all, spend a minor part of that money on enabling sustainable food production by the local people themselves?

Do we still have to confirm that we admire the nice work of UNICEF for children in real need? But, you Madame, you Sir, which way would you go?

——————-

Since the year 2011, a series of initiatives has been taken to alleviate hunger and malnutrition in the Sahel.  However, the food and nutrition situation is not significantly improved.

In March 2012, the World Food Programme published the article “The Malnutrition Threat in the Sahel(https://www.wfp.org/stories/nutrition-sahel-hunger-crisis-qa),

in which we read: “Recurrent food crises over the past decade have coincided with periods of widespread malnutrition among children. It’s a region where, even in non-emergency years, diets are undiversified and children often don’t receive necessary nutrients.”

In July 2012, we read an article of the Doctors without Borders (MSF): “Malnutrition in the Sahel: One million children treated, but what’s next ?(http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news-stories/field-news/malnutrition-sahel-one-million-children-treated-whats-next), in which MSF nutrition experts Susan Shepherd and Stéphane Doyon discussed the need for long-term solutions to malnutrition in Africa’s Sahel region.

We notice that:

  1. One million severely malnourished children will be treated this year (2012)  in the countries of the Sahel, according to UNICEF. Every year, the region faces a hunger gap between June and October, depending on the country, a time period between the depletion of the previous year’s food stocks and the next harvest. Malnutrition rates always hover near warning level in this mostly desert region, but during the hunger gap, the number of cases spikes and hundreds of thousands of children become at risk of death. “
  • “One million children suffering from severe malnutrition will be treated this year by governments and aid organizations across the Sahel. How should we interpret this number? *Susan Shepherd: It’s both a failure and a success. The failure is that each year, countries within the Sahel will face recurrent, large-scale nutritional crises that are growing even worse in some countries. One million malnourished children—that’s an enormous figure. But the most important take away from this year is how all of the aid actors—governments, United Nations agencies, and NGOs—have managed the crisis. Because of this, the major success is that for the first time, one million malnourished children will be treated in the Sahel, and the vast majority of these one million children will recover.”
  • How can we break the cycle? * Stéphane Doyon: Today, the management of this nutritional crisis is done in emergency mode. When we speak of an emergency, we are mostly referring to humanitarian interventions. This is where we run into one of the major challenges to enacting true change: for governments, these models of humanitarian action are difficult to repeat and to sustain over the long term. Therefore, we have to break out of this emergency response model and start developing a longer-term approach. Another challenge lies in understanding what exactly malnutrition is: a medical problem, related to a lack of food that satisfies the particular needs of children. Countries which have successfully addressed the problem of childhood malnutrition include nutrition in health systems. Long-term solutions should therefore include medical responses; development, agriculture and treatment of malnutrition are all complementary.

Today, one can rightly ask: Where are those long-term solutions including development, agriculture and treatment of malnutrition ?  Is agriculture, including kitchen gardens and school gardens, really seen as a complementary component in the combat of malnutrition?

In May 2015, we read the Echo Factsheet “Sahel: Food and Nutrition Crisis” of the European Commission (Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection) – (http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/sahel_en.pdf):

Key messages  

The Sahel continues to face a food and nutrition crisis which is compounded by the erosion of people’s resilience due to the quick succession of the crises, the absence of social services on and the ramifications of conflicts in the region.  

As one of the largest contributors of humanitarian aid to the Sahel, the European Commission has assisted 1.7 million extremely food insecure people and 580 000 severely malnourished children in 2014.  

The food and nutrition prospects for 2015 have not significantly improved. The past year has seen average harvests and food prices remain high. ……………….

Emergency needs in the Sahel will persist unless the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition are addressed and the resilience of the poorest people is strengthened. ……………..”

It becomes clear that food aid and nutritional programmes are necessary to tackle the emergent needs, but do not address the root causes.

If “in a region where, even in non-emergency years, diets are undiversified and children often don’t receive necessary nutrients” (WFP), we are tempted to think that creation of family gardens and school gardens will be a strong tool to address these root causes of food insecurity and child malnutrition.  If families and schools, and why not the hospitals, grow their own fresh food, using existing, successful techniques to limit irrigation water consumption, the malnourished people would get their daily ration of diversified healthy food, full of minerals and vitamins.

Let us imagine for a moment that the decision-makers can convince all the key players in the prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach hands to enact a true change by combining the traditional programmes of offering nutritious rations to supplement the normal diet with a programme of offering ways and means to install a kitchen garden for every family, for every school, for every hospital.

Wouldn’t that be a long-term solution that tackles the root causes, a “break out of this emergency response model and start developing a longer-term approach.”?  

We believe it is !

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.