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Hunger: what's really happening in east Africa...

George Mutwiri, Save the Children’s Head of Nutrition, gives an exclusive update on our work to tackle malnutrition in east Africa.

My specific focus is on the Horn of Africa, which is currently facing massive drought - I'm talking about three countries; Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. These countries are facing drought, leading to famine like conditions in some areas. 

One might want to ask: why are we talking about drought at this time? The main reason is because this drought is the worst in the last 40 years. We haven't witnessed what we are witnessing currently. 

Another challenge is, of course, the communities that are currently affected by this drought were in a similar situation in 2017. They are still trying to recover from that drought. Even before they can recover, another massive drought comes in. This has happened because of failed rains over a period of four seasons. 

Because of this, around 20 million people in these countries need humanitarian assistance. 

And then we also have the devastating effects of the COVID-19, which have affected commodity prices and the availability of basic goods such as food. People are finding themselves in a situation where they are not able to afford the food. And then there are also issues of insecurity and conflict which come along within the areas that are especially affected by the drought, leading to massive displacement of people. 

So all this has really affected the people in a big way. We have malnutrition rates that are currently increasing - and we are talking about a 30% percent increase in malnutrition compared to last year.

Why does it matter to children?

It matters so much for children because they need food, a clean environment, health services and clean drinking water. We know that children are the most vulnerable to malnutrition and death. 

We also know that up to the age of two years, that's when the body is growing and developing very fast. And it's also the stage where important organs of the body are forming, such as the brain. For the brain and the organs to develop, there is an increased need of nutrition. So we need to increase nutritional support for children so they can balance the rapid growth and development of their bodies. 

If there are nutritional deficits within this period, then we have what we call ‘irreversible consequences’ on the child’s development. That has an effect on their schooling, for example. But also it means that when they grow up, they are not able to achieve their potential as adults.  

I have already said that in East Africa, currently the rate of malnutrition is more than three times more than it was last year. This basically means that if you have 10 children, then three children of them are facing under-nutrition, and have high risk of death due to undernutrition. But also what is important to know is that if they don't die, the transformation that happens within their body means they cannot reach their full potential.

What's Save the Children doing about it?

Save the Children is doing the best it can to support and save lives in these countries. Most of our staff come from the countries that are facing the humanitarian crisis, and we have a number of people coming from the communities that we support. They have a very good contextual knowledge of the areas, but they are also experts in their fields and so they already know exactly what needs to be done. 

Most of the people we are supporting come from hard-to-reach areas. Many are displaced because of the drought and have settled in camps for internally displaced people. Due to the long distances and the conditions, many children are very weak when they arrive at the health facilities. They are so weak and some of them are dying as they undergo treatment.  

This is a very unfortunate situation that our staff have to come through, but they all do the best that they can in order to save as many lives as possible. It's hard for colleagues, because they know what really needs to be done to prevent the situation. But there are a number of limitations - such as resources - which limit us from reaching these people. 

We have grown our operation so we can reach as many people as possible, save lives, and offer humanitarian assistance.

We are screening children to identify those that are malnourished, so we can treat them before their condition deteriorated. We are also educating mothers on how they need to feed their infants and young children and especially ensuring that mothers are breastfeeding. 

We are also scaling up our cash assistance programme. We are not just supporting them to buy food, but we are linking that with the nutrition so that we are able to advise them on food that supports their nutritional well-being. In addition, we are supporting other programmes such as water and health services, because they all come together to support the well-being of a child. 

What does the future look like?

Looking into the future, we are already expecting that the next rainy season will also not be adequate. But when resources are made available, we believe that we can support the Horn of Africa through this dire situation.  

Together with all our partners, we have a chance to support communities to achieve their potential. But we will require more resources. Once we have that, then we can scale our programmes and reach more children to prevent them from being affected by malnutrition and sickness. 

If you would like to read more or donate, please follow this link.

Thank you so much.