Distant guns, hungry children

With a doubt, this past year was one of shocking man-made food crises and famine. And tragically, the world's poorest and most vulnerable children were made to suffer due to the greed and hatred of adults.

In 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs alerted the world to massive food crises in South Sudan, Yemen, northeast Nigeria and Somalia, reporting that more than 20 million people were either experiencing famine or were at risk of slipping into famine. The food shortages were caused by civil conflicts and indiscriminate violence.

After the Fire

Pete Townshend, the guitarist and principal songwriter for The Who, penned a song for the Live Aid concert for famine relief in the summer of 1985. Having reunited for the concert after a three-year hiatus, the band was rusty and decided not perform the new song, opting instead for a set list of tried-and-true stadium anthems.

However, the song was too good to waste. So Townshend gave it to the band's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, who performed it on his 1985 solo album Under a Raging Moon.

After the Fire is an evocative anthem about growing older in the age of violence, famine and mass media. There is a line in the song that prophetically evokes the pain, danger and anguish of 2017: "I heard a voice asking, what happens after the fire? And then the sound of a breaking window and the scream of a tire. And then the sound of a distant gun and the scream of a hungry child."

In 2017, what was the connection between the sound of distant guns and the plight of hungry children in foreign lands?

"The guns, for those children, were not that distant," David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, said in a year-end telephone interview. "They were way too close."

Reflecting on the ongoing food crisis in South Sudan, Morley said "it's all guns" and violence. "That is what is causing the problem."

There is no denying that the biggest food crises of this past year were driven by conflict. "Sometimes it's political," the UNICEF Canada boss said of the violence. "Sometimes it's religious. But the children are the ones who are suffering the most."

Syria was another example cited by Morley of a food crisis arising from conflict. "If peace does come to Syria "¦," the humanitarian leader said, his voice trailing off. "There is still so much hunger there, too. "¦ Our teams in places like Aleppo and other places that were under siege in Syria have also been finding that same hunger. And guns are a huge part of it."

Violence destroys agriculture

Why does conflict have such a devastating impact on agrarian societies such as South Sudan's? According to Morley, the violence has forced South Sudanese to abandon their farms and cattle herds.

"They lose the access to the food that they've been living on," he explained. "South Sudan is a place that could feed itself, and probably export once the economy is more developed." But as it stands now, people in conflict zones are "afraid to plant" and that means farmers' fields are yielding little food.

In addition, Morley pointed out that the agricultural market system in South Sudan has broken down as a result of the civil war. "Because people involved in trading don't want to go to a conflict area," he said.

In a more urban country such as Yemen, Morley said, the food insecurity picture looks somewhat different. For example, in cities, "families are going to be afraid to leave their houses" for fear of the fighting and airstrikes.

"So all of these things get in the way of normal activities of any family, or just making sure your kids have enough to eat. You can't do it, because you are afraid of conflict and violence," Morley said.

Human dignity, malnutrition

What does malnutrition mean for the health of children?

Malnutrition can cause stunting, Morley replied. "It means a child will not be able to develop to their full potential -- either physically or mentally. That's the long-term, bleak option."

The UNICEF Canada boss travelled to South Sudan in October 2017 and got a first-hand look at one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. At the country's civilian protection sites, UNICEF is providing health care and schooling for internally displaced children. And Morley noted that in the protected areas, two-thirds of the kids attend school.

However, in those same protected areas, the parents do not have jobs, and that can adversely affect the family.

"In these places of acute violence, you can deal with the health and education of the children," Morley continued. "But we have to see, if this continues, how do we ensure the parents have dignity and pride in who they are? Because that's important for our children: to have pride in their own parents and their family."

What are the odds of survival for severely malnourished kids who are not lucky enough to make it into civilian protection zones in South Sudan?

"The odds are terrible," Morley replied bluntly. "If you're not getting enough to eat and you're weak, something will come, something like malaria or diarrhea. As a child, it will kill you pretty quickly.

"Or if you are drinking bad water, you are going to get cholera. If you're malnourished, it's going to kill you really quickly. If you're not in the protected areas, and you're a malnourished child, your prospects are extremely dim."

Lost generation and SDGs

Malnourishment, stunting and lack of education affect huge numbers of children in South Sudan and Yemen. Is the world witnessing the creation of a lost generation?

"I think there's a risk of that," Morley answered candidly. But he tries to remain somewhat optimistic, recalling that he met many South Sudanese who had returned to the war-torn country after studying abroad to help save their country of origin.

Morley said it is imperative for the international community to support such local heroes in order to avoid a lost generation of children. In addition, he said conflict zones, such as Syria, need peace if this generation of children is to be saved.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of human development benchmarks and goals adopted by the United Nations. To ensure that the world's most vulnerable children benefit from programs designed to advance the SDGs, Morley said in-depth data analysis is essential.

"It is the responsibility of UN member states to monitor the progress towards the implementation of the SDGs by collecting the data required for the indicators," a new report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) states.

"This is impeded by the fact that there is a correlation between how far a country is behind in achieving the SDGs and how often its capacities to provide the relevant data are low. In other words, developed countries usually have better data than developing countries," notes the UNESCAP report, which is entitled Innovative Big Data: Approaches for Capturing and Analyzing Data to Monitor and Achieve the SDGs.

"We need big data, because we need to understand better where are the areas where children are in most need of help," he explained. Under the previous UN development benchmarks -- the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- national averages were used to gauge progress on child poverty, health and education.

National averages, however, did not tell the whole story. For example, Morley said, national averages in India and Nigeria gave the impression of great progress on child welfare. While significant progress was made in those countries under the MDGs, many children were still left behind. But the reliance on national averages obscured this fact.

"They tend to be children of minorities, single-parent families, children whose parents have less education," Morley said of the kids left behind.

"The Sustainable Development Goals are saying, 'national averages aren't good enough.' We want to make a difference to the poorest of the poor -- the people who are at most risk of being left behind," he asserted.

"That's something UNICEF has been really concentrating on in the last decade or so. And that's where big data can help in a better analysis of where are the poorer areas."

According to Morley, UNICEF has been designing programs to reach the poorest children, which can require some detective work. Some of the poorest kids are not easy to spot. For example, he stated that children with disabilities are often hidden in communities, never leaving their homes.

"If we can get programs that will get health and education out to the poorest forgotten corners of any country, our analysis shows that it helps the whole country," Morley said of the transformative impact of human development assistance for the most vulnerable. When the supply chain stretches from a capital city to a remote area, people all along the route receive greater assistance.

Although Morley said that national averages are still important, UNICEF is trying to rely on more detailed statistics to reach the bottom 20 per cent of the world's poorest children.

Canada chairs G7

In 2018, Canada will assume the presidency of the Group of Seven (G7), setting the agenda for meetings of the top industrial nations of the West.

According to a statement issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office, "Canada will advance domestic and international priorities framed by the following five key themes: Investing in growth that works for everyone; preparing for jobs of the future; advancing gender equality and women's empowerment; working together on climate change, oceans and clean energy; and building a more peaceful and secure world."

Unfortunately, Trudeau's G7 priorities make no mention of child welfare or extreme poverty.

Morley tried his best to find something positive in the G7 agenda. For example, on the issue of gender equality and women's empowerment, the UNICEF Canada leader expressed the hope that the prime minister and his government will not just focus on women.

"If you expand to include girls, then we know that educating girls, getting girls into secondary school is a huge, cost-effective way to help ensure that families are better off. Whole families benefit as girls are educated," Morley stated.

"If those priorities are translated into girls' education, I think that's fine," Morley said of the G7 agenda. And he pointed out that as child mortality rates continue to decline, parents will want their children to receive better education. "So maybe education is the next step and it fits within the parameters of the government."

In addition, Morley asserted that teaching girls about climate change and more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices could also be beneficial.

Nevertheless, climate change policies will not have any measurable impact on the current generation of children living in conflict zones and facing man-made food shortages.

As president of the G7, what should Canada do to help Rohingya children displaced by an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar, feed the starving kids of South Sudan and Yemen, and shield children from the ravages of conflict?

"Canada and the others can commit more to humanitarian assistance," Morley answered. And he contends that the G7 needs to try harder to find "diplomatic means to stop some of this violence."

When it comes to the question of child welfare, peace is the answer.

"Where there is peace, you can start to have development," Morley said. "Then people want to invest in their children." And that leads to better health and education services.

Is Morley optimistic that the welfare of the world's most vulnerable children will improve in 2018?

"Guardedly optimistic," he replied. "I think in the places we don't hear about, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where there are not wars going on, where there's not conflict, I do think things are getting better." For example, he thinks things will continue to improve for the poorest children in Latin American and parts of Asia.

"But if we can't bring some of this conflict [in other parts of the world] under control, if some major powers become more internally focused, and if Europe stays internally focused, and they are not always actively lending support for peace and development, then I am feeling less optimistic," the UNICEF Canada boss said.

"Countries that are at peace are able and usually choose to make a positive difference to their children. So that part I'm optimistic about."

For Morley, securing peace will be absolutely necessary if every vulnerable child is to have a chance at a better life. "That's where I am a bit more guarded," he confessed.

As long as those distant guns continue to fire, the cries of hungry children will only grow louder in 2018.

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.

The Kingston Whig-Standard 2017 © 

Leave a Reply