By Tim Costello, chief executive of World Vision Australia
Published on The Punch, Thursday 14 June 2012
What would you do if you looked out your front window and saw the child next door – the child who was once a healthy, energetic 11-year-old – search the bushes for insects to feed his youngest sister?
What would you do if you knew that once a fortnight the boy walked his sister almost 10km to a health centre for help? Or if you knew, as the children became thinner and thinner, that their desperate father was about to leave them to search for work in the city?
What if the father was considering selling a seven-year-old into marriage because he could no longer afford to feed her, and needed the payment to feed the rest of his family?
Would you ignore your neighbours, with their shocked eyes and protruding ribs, or would you walk next door and provide what help you could?
Today some 18 million people face a food crisis in West Africa. Yet their plight is failing to capture the world’s attention and little assistance is flowing in.
The idea of children trying to survive on insects isn’t fiction, it’s the brutal reality of 11-year-old Salissou’s existence as he struggles to keep his sister Rashida, 2, alive in Niger.
And World Vision has also received reports of children as young as seven being sold into marriage.
Of the eight countries hit, Niger is the worst affected by the West Africa food crisis; a crisis that has been mostly ignored. Maybe that’s understandable. After all, Europe is in financial crisis; the United States is just recovering from its own fiscal nightmare; recent years feel like they have been filled with tragedies and compassion fatigue is wearing us down; and we’re told every day debt is rising and stocks are falling.
Yet the scale of the tragedy in West Africa now is enormous, and as it worsens each day, we should be aware of the bitter reality that we could be preventing it.
Today across the region there are 18 million people – the equivalent of more than 80 per cent of the Australian population – battling the consequences of unrelenting drought, exacerbated by regional instability and subsequent migration and displacement; long-term underdevelopment; locust attacks; and significant regional mean temperature variations.
World Vision is trying to provide both immediate and long term relief to 1.1 million people across West Africa, but we struggle to do our work without precious donations. Right now, World Vision Australia is facing the slowest response to an appeal in many years. Only about $175,000 has been donated to our West Africa appeal, compared to the $6 million generously given by Australians last year when the Horn of Africa was ravaged by drought.
The Australian government has already given $30 million in immediate aid to West Africa - and well over $100 million to East Africa, with another $30 million for long term projects - but the need is so great in the region that more is necessary. This is a chance for the government to show leadership and prove it sees Australia as a concerned global citizen.
The numbers of people facing a potential catastrophe are staggering, and the impact will hit the vulnerable the hardest – these include babies, the elderly, pregnant women and lactating mothers. Already one million children across the region are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, and another three million are at risk of moderate acute malnutrition.
When news of children suffering reaches us in our comfortable homes with our full cupboards, it is hard for us to hear it. We don’t want to look at our own children and imagine what it would be like to have to choose which one lives and which one is left by the side of the road, too weak to go on, as we make our way to an overcrowded refugee camp. We don’t want to think about not being able to provide even one meal a day for those we love.
The world was warned about the impending crisis in Niger and elsewhere in West Africa when crops failed last year, just after rallying to the Horn of Africa when famine was declared in some regions of Somalia. Then too, aid agencies tried to avert disaster early, but only got attention once children started dying and their haunting faces appeared in the media. The question asked about East Africa was why it took so long to act.
The time to intervene in West Africa is now, before we are forced to ask exactly the same questions all over again.
To donate to the West Africa Food Crisis Appeal, visit World Vision or call 13 32 40.