20 August 2005
During every emergency aid appeal, the public quite rightly demands to know if the money donated is really getting to the people who need it.
In Britain, the appeal issued by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has been met with moving generosity, raising an astonishing £17 million so far for the work of it 10 member charities in Niger, Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso.
It often requires explanation that not ever penny translates into a handout of food. Sizeable expenses are incurred organizing everything from transport, fuel and telecommunications to visas, insurance and security.
The logistical supply chain may be long and heavy, but every component of an aid operation is essential, every piece fits into the wider whole. And it all comes together with one aim in mind.
So if you really want to know where your donations end up, meet Yacouba.
Back to life
The 10-month-old boy sits on the lap of his mother Halima outside their hut in the commune of Illela, some 30km south of Tahoua, the provincial capital of one of the regions in Niger hardest hit by the latest hunger crisis.
She is feeding him spoonfuls of a nutritious porridge made from Unimix, a vitamin-enriched flour that was distributed to 177 children in this commune last Friday by the International Federation of the Red Cross.The flour itself was supplied by the British Red Cross, which is benefiting from the DEC Appeal.
“He’s got so much better, it’s a total change from how he was before,” says Halima. “From the moment he was born, he has suffered from illnesses, all because of malnutrition.”
Chronic lack of food
Jacouba’s belly is still visibly distended from the chronic lack of food in his short life, but his eyes are bright and his breathing is easy. Halima is happy to report that he has started breast-feeding again, his appetite is back.
A drought combined with a locust plague decimated last year’s harvest in Niger, forcing grain prices up and animal prices down. It left Halima’s family and tens of thousands like them in an impossibly vulnerable position.
“Our situation was a catastrophe, I was so worried about Jacouba,” she says. “We had no food and we had to rely on what we were given by some relatives.” The families of malnourished children also received two sacks of rice to prevent the child’s ration from being divided up among them.
Red Cross distributions in Niger began at the beginning of August, targeting some 24,500 children and their families in the regions of Tahoua, Maradi, Zinder and Agadez. The International Federation has expanded its own appeal for assistance and is now planning to reach some 532,000 people over the next six months in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Long road ahead
Red Cross teams based in Tahoua have distributed to almost 1,700 children so far out of a target for the region of 8,000. Yacouba’s is a success story, but much is still to be done and life for many remains precarious in the extreme.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it here,” says Dr Amadou Kambewasso, the district health ministry officer. “People have no money for food, let alone medicine. They just do not bother coming for treatment, they can’t afford anything.”
Dr Kambewasso does not want to speculate in detail on what would have happened here without the arrival of humanitarian aid, saying only it would have got “much, much worse”. He adds that it will be at least another month, when the harvest is due, before the situation stands any chance of stabilising.
For the time being, though, he is just relieved the Red Cross was here. “I am very happy that they came,” he says.
Aside from the feeding centres for malnourished children, the Red Cross has also undertaken to distribute a general public ration of millet, sorghum and lentils supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP) to some 220,000 people in the eastern region of Tillaberi.
Figures of this magnitude can be distracting. Back in Illela, the underlying meaning, the point of it all, is there for anyone to see. Halima feeds her son, a sack of rice sits in the corner. “I have hope in the future now,” she smiles.
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