by NATASHA STOTT DESPOJA
Talking to children the same age as my own about the fact that they have not eaten all day, and are unlikely to eat proper meals for months on end, is heartbreaking.
This is the reality I confronted when I visited Burkina Faso in West Africa last month.
I wanted to see the extent of the food crisis in West Africa and also look at the issues confronting refugees from Mali – many of whom have crossed the border into Burkina Faso.
I met many children and babies sick from hunger and disease. I saw parents forgoing their meals to keep their children fed. I saw malnourished men, women and children toiling in fields to reap crops in the aftermath of drought and erratic rains.
In Burkina Faso, 1.9 million people are estimated to be affected by the food crisis. Across West Africa, more than 18 million people are in need of help – that’s almost the entire population of Australia. One million children are at risk of severe malnutrition.
In the region that includes countries like Niger, Chad and Mauritania, poor and unreliable rains, combined with skyrocketing food prices, have overwhelmed people’s ability to cope. The refugee influx due to the conflict in nearby Mali is exacerbating the situation.
The current food crisis in West Africa is one example of the global hunger problem. It’s extraordinary to think that in a world that produces more than enough food for everyone to eat, one in seven people still go to bed hungry every night.
What may be surprising to many is that the vast majority of the world’s hungry are farmers. They are surrounded by the means to produce food, yet they miss out.
It may be that they struggle against unfair land arrangements meaning they don’t have guaranteed access to the land or water they need to grow food. Or they may be seasonal farm labourers, working in the fields all day but not earning enough to feed their family.
Meanwhile, extreme weather such as severe flooding or storms can wipe out entire crops. In parts of West Africa, families that have been going hungry due to drought are now dealing with the effects of flooding from heavy rains, which includes impacts on the next season’s crops.
Around the world, women in particular are among the worst affected when it comes to hunger. It’s women who feed families and produce most of the food in developing countries, yet they represent more than half of the world’s hungry.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, giving women equal access to land and resources, including simple things such as seeds and tools, could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 to 150 million.
Awa Sana in Burkina Faso is one of those women. She walked me through her fields and invited me to her home. Her graciousness and hospitality was typical of the Burkinabe people I met, despite the adversity they face.
Tall and thin, Awa, aged 60, shares a hut with three grandchildren. Her home — a series of huts – is shared with 12 children and many other grandchildren.
Last year, her family could hardly harvest even one bag of grain. They are hoping to harvest ten bags this year, but that still won’t be enough to ensure meals every day, let alone during the four months each year that is the ‘lean season’.
Given the current climate, Awa’s story is a relative success. Her family has used ‘cash for work’ payments received from Oxfam to buy food in the short-term, and plant seeds for the medium term. Under this program, Awa and others are working their fields with new farming techniques that will allow them to improve cereal production.
In West Africa, aid agencies like Oxfam are responding to both the immediate humanitarian crisis, providing lifesaving food, water and cash support, as well as solutions for the long term.
This includes things like investing in small-scale farmers to help boost local food production, for example helping with new irrigation, or providing seeds for different and hardier crops.
Establishing bigger and better food reserves will also help secure food supply in times of need and keep prices more stable.
By taking action now, we will help to ensure a future where everyone in West Africa has enough to eat. Drought is inevitable, but hunger is not.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Donate to Oxfam Australia’s West Africa food crisis appeal by calling 1800 034 034 or logging on to www.oxfam.org.au
Natasha Stott Despoja is a former Senator and leader of the Australian Democrats.