Under-reported disaster still claiming victims in Africa

By January 9, 2013

Sahel (MNN) — The largest humanitarian disaster of 2012 was the most under-reported.

We're talking about the Sahel food crisis in sub-Saharan Africa where nearly 19 million people faced starvation last year. Unfamiliar?

The Sahel (Arabic for "Shore") is a 3,400-mile expanse that reaches from coast to coast of Africa, between the Sahara desert and the savanna. It covers parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Cameroon, and Eritrea.

Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, says the crisis was triggered by a combination of drought, high food prices, and insurgencies. Today, he says, "The situation has gotten a little bit better in terms of the rains. They've come, but you're still looking at long delays to get harvests in and to get food back up to the area. Then you've got isolated areas. You've got some huge areas that are still critical. "

Even with the relief of rain, Palmer says, "You're probably looking at now about 12 million people still in critical need of food." The United Nations estimates roughly three million remain at urgent risk, and more than a million children under age five could starve to death without intervention.

While multi billions were pledged in global aid, only half of what was promised came in. A huge number of people–mainly children–were at risk of starvation, and the lack of media interest in this crisis was both surprising and frustrating.

Palmer attributes that to a type of "compassion fatigue." There are other reasons that this crisis struggles for footing in global awareness. First, he explains, "It happens every 7-10 years. It's kind of old news. Number two, it's kind of a long-term thing. I mean it happens, and then it drags on for a year or two."

Then, there are the myriad of insurgencies and civil wars that resulted from the "Arab Spring." Syria, Egypt, Mali, and Nigeria all grabbed headlines and relegated news of starvation to mentions "below the fold." However, BGR teams were anything but unaware. Palmer says the rise in violence in Mali and Niger caused problems for distributions. "It affects trying to get food to the neediest people. Trying to get supplies to the places that it needs to go is just hard to do. We had about two or three projects that we had to pull back on–BGR work, because we just couldn't get guaranteed safety for the delivery of the goods."

Ironically, even though it started with a drought, distribution trouble also came from a natural disaster of flooding. Most of the major flooding in the Sahel has subsided with the exception of Niger and Nigeria, which are dealing with a second flood stage of the Niger River due to heavy Guinean rains from early December.

Longer-term effects of the drought will be felt for several years due to the loss of harvests and the inability to recover from the effects of high food prices. Palmer says, "We are still focusing on this area of the world for food and for basic goods that people would need. Again, even IF the food situation looks good, the armed conflict situation affecting the region will still continue to affect a lot of people and keep them in need."

BGR teams did a food distribution in September and again in November. There was provision, and then, adds Palmer, there was provision they didn't expect. "Traditionally, these are areas that are not necessarily friendly to the Gospel. As followers of Christ and as humanitarian agencies that bring not just physical food but also bring spiritual food, we can use these ministries to break down the barriers, the preconceived ideas of who we are."

Please pray for BGR teams as distribution is quite a process. Pray that they speak clearly when communicating with the villagers. "They really didn't care much who we were, but they cared that we were people who cared about them. It opened doors for us to be able share physically that God cares about them, but we also shared spiritually that this is the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that we're able to be out here and help."

Pray that God's love is evident and lives will be changed for eternity. Want to know more? BGR could use help, notes Palmer. "We would love to have people partner with us in giving, and we even have a few opportunities for folks to go and work with us in hands-on work in some of these countries."

You can help by donating to BGR's fund for Africa Famine Relief or the World Hunger Fund. For links, check our Featured Link section. 

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