The international community has difficulty relating to the chronic hunger prevalent in western Mali. The World Food Programme (WFP) is alone in helping the people, writes Lars Zbinden Hansen, in the Danish newspaper “Information”.
There is something tough and harsh about WFP aid workers. Perhaps it’s due to their daily encounters with malnourished children and the seriously ill who don’t have access to medical help and the lack of water and food.
Basically, it’s because they’re working alongside people who are on the very edge of survival.
Issa Diakaté, WFP’s head of sub-office in Kayes, is a serious man who rarely smiles. He replies in a friendly enough way to questions, but always briefly.
It’s as though Issa is trying to control his inner stress while handling all the logistical problems in his part of the programme in Mali, where there are about four million malnourished or undernourished people.
Issa does not waste time theorising about whether the 820 (sic) million people in the poor world are starving. He knows very well the paradox between the rich and poor and he also knows that the number of hungry in the world has fallen slightly in the past 10-15 years, while the number of malnourished Africans has risen.
Issa Diakaté’s task is to make sure the food reaches the poor and this is a very tough job in the extremely dry Sahel desert.
Here in Kayes on a Sunday afternoon, Issa is checking WFP’s trucks, which have driven 1000km from Lomé in Togo. Is everything as it should be?
While checking, he says: “To work for WFP is to work seven days a week. Everything else would not make sense. People need something to eat every day. This is humanitarian work.”
The food aid goes to the villages in the Kayes region where people rely entirely on WFP food assistance; most of it is distributed to schools where it’s the only meal the children get.
If Africa is the forgotten continent, Kayes is the forgotten region in Mali. The only agencies present are WFP, UNICEF and one German NGO which is working on improving agricultural methods.
Not even WFP’s collaborators, the international NGOs, which distribute food aid are present. Nor are the bilateral organisations such as Danida, Sida or USAID. They are only present close to the capital.
WFP explains that Kayes is too far from the capital, its climate is too rough and the region too inaccessible. But people here are starving.
Moreover, Kayes has many emigrants with a long tradition of sending their young men abroad (mostly to France) from where they send money home.
The contrast between the villages where emigrants’ families live and those which don’t have relatives abroad is huge. The emigrants’ villages are marked by the number of well-fed people with proper houses while the others have mud huts and hunger is visible everywhere.
WFP is trying to alleviate the effects on the vulnerable of the 2004-2005 catastrophe when the rain did not come and at the same time the region was invaded by swarms of locusts. With a bit of rain in 2006 the situation improved and WFP is now concentrating on keeping the chronic hunger away.
But the lack of automatic and systematic funding from donor countries makes WFP’s work very difficult, and the organisation constantly has to appeal for more funding.
Sweden is the most stable donor to WFP, Denmark and Japan are good as well.
Too little, too late
But in general the aid is too late and too little. This is also affecting the work in Kayes.
WFP still lacks about 52 percent of the food aid required for the remaining 18 months of the project. What happens then is a good question - according to Michel Laguesse, WFP’s Deputy Country Director in Mali. WFP is almost permanently under-financed.
“We cannot work with projects that last for more than 1.5 to 2 years. The rich world and the donors think that food aid is only used for emergency situations. They do not understand the chronic hunger which comes from poverty,” says Laguesse.
In the dry, burning heat of Kayes, WFP also has many logistical, technical and cultural problems to deal with. Getting the food in time is the biggest hurdle.
There is a lot of theft, fraud and even hold-ups along the way. That is why Issa Diakaté is checking the trucks upon arrival. Control is essential in Kayes, and it’s needed right through from the warehouse to the beneficiaries.
Too little food Ismail Traore, [from a Malian NGO] keeps a check on things and is responsible for 48 schools within a 100km range.
He comes from the southern, more fertile province of Sikasso and says he was shocked when he arrived in Kayes three years ago.
“I had never believed that such poverty existed and that people were so starving.”
We arrive in an old car at the school in Sambacire Sambala, 60 km from Kayes.
The school has six classes and almost 700 pupils, more than 100 children in each class. Before, there were 300 in the school, but since WFP started school feeding, the number has shot up.
The school has formed a committee of parents who are responsible for the meals.
Water is a particular problem. This is not within WFP’s mandate. There is no water at the school and the women have to bring it from the nearest village.
The school director shows us the food store. WFP bags are in place and Ismail is happy.
But he cannot do anything about the fact that the students only receive one meal instead of two, as was originally planned by WFP.
All schools in the region must choose whether they give food to the children who were registered when WFP started the project or if they want to share the food between all students. It is a real dilemma.
The school director says it is impossible to give food to only some of the children.
“No one can do that,” he says. You can tell the pupils only get one meal a day. It looks like an eating competition when the meal is served.
Importance of education
“Education is important,” Ismail says. “If you took away the food, the children would stay away from school.”
It is the same in all the schools: packed classes and too little food for too many children, parents helping – especially the women cooking food and sharing the food equally between all children.
Back in Kayes, we meet Issa Diakaté again and ask him about the shortage of food in the schools. “That’s how it is,” he replies. “There are so many problems; we can only do our best.”