July 24, 2005
From Gonder to Niger
I spent most of last week touring the countryside around Gonder with UNICEF (I have just started a three month contract with the agency helping out with their emergency communications). One the last day, just before catching the plane back to Addis, we spent an hour in a therapeutic feeding centre in Gonder's main university hospital. A therapeutic feeding centre (or TFC) is where only the most severely malnourished children go - the kind of children that could die at any moment without treatment simply because they are not getting enough of the right sort of food. There were about 20 shrunken children in the beds, including 10-year-old Abraham pictured here, either on drips of being fed fortified milk with syringes. They all seemed very well cared for but incredibly fragile.
When we got back there were the pictures of the Niger food crisis on TV. To untrained eyes, the children in Niger seemed in a much worse state. But again, most of the pictures came from an emergency therapeutic feeding centre. The same shrunken children were being fed with the same life-saving substances - fortified milk and a wonderful product called Plumpy Nut - a kind of pumped-up peanut butter that can have almost miraculous effects on malnourished children.
That wasn't the only similarity between the two scenes. Half way through a BBC report on the Niger crisis, a worker for Save the Children UK appeared in front of the camera talking about how "undramatic" the whole situation was. "There is no war in Niger, no rebel groups, no despots, no problems getting the aid in, it is just poverty," said Toby Porter, Save the Children's Director of Emergencies in a press release. "And kids are starving to death. It is simply because so many people in Niger are desperately poor, so many people living below the poverty line that a small shock creates a humanitarian disaster."
In Gonder it was also "just poverty". The children had been picked up in a routine government-run, UNICEF-funded, health screening of rural communities around the city. They hadn't been caught up in any wars, rebel clashes, floods or anything dramatic like that. They had just been caught up in everyday poverty compounded by disease (the day before the hospital had treated two children, aged 7 and 11, for polio, part of a brand new outbreak - but that is another story).
It was the fact that it was all so ordinary that was the really scary thing. There were no TV cameras or international reporters. It was just another ordinary day in Gonder. The first time I saw a TFC it was very upsetting. This time I must admit I had become sufficiently hardened to just get on with my job.
It is no surprise that aid agencies have such a tough time raising funds when we have got so used to scenes like these. Earlier this month, UNICEF Ethiopia put out an appeal for donors to fill a $42 million hole in funding (Niger is looking for $18 million), partly for the same screening programme that brought the children into Gonder hospital.
And it is not just the "western world" that has grown hardened and uninterested. The Addis-based papers here hardly ever write about the ongoing nutrition crisis (up to 500,000 Ethiopian children die every year from preventable causes but apparently that is not a story). The last time I wrote about malnutrition on this website, I got loads of complaints from Ethiopian readers accusing me of trying to "ruin the image of the country". Someone else said "all you can think of covering is the same old recycled stories...". Which is actually close to the point that I am making. These stories of dying children are getting "old" and "recycled". And we are all getting used to them.
UPDATE: Save The Children UK has set up a special Niger Food Crisis appeal page.
Posted by aheavens at July 24, 2005 7:12 AM