Why is sponsorship not enough to meet the needs of children and their families during the global food crisis? Faith Magadi, a disaster resilience expert for Compassion, explains why we are not living in the same world as we were three years ago. The needs of families in poverty are changing, and so too must our response.
16 Mar, 2023
In Kenya, changes in climate are damaging crops, livelihoods and whole communities, and more families face the impossible choice to send their children to the streets to beg. For families to survive the current global food crisis, and other crises in years to come, Faith explains why Compassion’s approach to building long-term resilience and sustainability is so critical.
You can listen to the full interview below.
Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role?
My name is Faith Magadi and I live in Kenya. My role in Compassion is Senior Manager for the Disaster Resilience Advisory Team. My role exists to empower the Compassion International national offices across the world to be able to be better prepared for disasters, to respond effectively and efficiently, and to be able to project and mitigate future disasters. My role is to try to build their capacity to work alongside the national offices and to empower them to be in a better position when disaster strikes.
What does the food crisis look like in Kenya?
In Kenya, the food crisis has really become an issue. In fact, even the president is talking about it, the media is talking about it and the citizens are talking about it. Kenya is largely an agricultural country and we mostly grow our food. Whenever the rains fail, citizens get worried, and this is the fourth consecutive failed rainy season. And that has now escalated the food crisis because food has become expensive because of global inflation. So, what we’ve seen is more counties in Kenya that are already arid and semi-arid have been struggling with drought. There have been animals who have been reported to be dying because of the drought and, unfortunately, more children are living on the street because families can no longer support them.
What does inflation look like in Kenya?
In Kenya, the food that is eaten by most Kenyans is maize. We use maize to cook a meal that is called ugali, and ugali is eaten across the country in different tribes and different locations. Five years ago, two kilograms of maize meal cost A$1 (100 Kenyan shillings). Today, two kilograms of maize is costing approximately A$3 (240 Kenyan shillings). If families can no longer afford maize, then that points to a very precarious situation in the country.
The cost of fuel has also increased from less than A$1 per litre to almost A$2. That means that people are no longer able to fuel their cars and are no longer able to afford basic commodities like soap and fertiliser.
What you could afford one year ago with A$10 (1,000 Kenyan shillings), you can afford maybe half or less of that now.
Could you explain why more children are living on the streets? What leads a family to these kinds of extreme measures?
For most families that are in the urban centres, they’ve had to send their children back to the rural centres. In rural villages, you're able to grow a bit of food and live with family and neighbours. Families that are already in the urban centres and don’t have family back in the rural village have had to send their children to the street to become beggars. If you study in Kenya, you’ll find that we’ve had problems with children living on the street for years.
This problem has increased because of the biting inflation and the food crisis. We have seen more and younger children in the street.
Today, you can see children as young as 5 years old begging on the street in order to take something back to their parents to feed their family.
It goes without saying that this poses a lot of child protection issues for the children, but it also just exposes the level of depravity to which the food crisis has taken people.
What do you think are the most acute needs of the food crisis right now in Kenya?
What families need the most is money to buy food. I started by mentioning that we are now importing a lot of our food because of failed rainy seasons and agricultural land becoming smaller and smaller because people are opting for alternative livelihoods.
Another thing that families need is education on smart agriculture. We are seeing the rainy season changing almost every year, so it is obvious that there is climate change across the country. But what we’re lacking, and the gap that we’re seeing, is knowledge of climate smart agriculture.
Another need is an understanding of livelihood diversification. If you have traditionally been farming maize over the years and you're seeing your harvest dwindling over time, could we maybe speak to this farmer to diversify their livelihood and seek alternative ways of earning income?
Another need is jobs. It's becoming a common cry among the Kenyan youth, even among Kenyan adults, that there are no jobs. We have youth who are willing to work, who are looking for jobs, but these jobs are not forthcoming. So if this youth can get a job, they can act as an alternative support to their parents in feeding the rest of the family. So I would say jobs, money to buy food, diversification of livelihoods and climate smart agriculture are the key needs in Kenya right now.
How is Compassion responding to the food crisis in Kenya?
Compassion is using a two-pronged approach: short term aid and long-term, sustainable solutions. So what Compassion is doing in those locations is giving unconditional cash transfers. Another way that Compassion is managing the food crisis is engaging climate smart agriculture. Compassion is also helping families do value addition and then connecting them with markets.
I've seen families in Kenya, who are working with Compassion, become able to feed their children and pay school fees just from the money that is made from selling farm products. So there is value addition, there is access to markets and support with smart agricultural knowledge, while at the same time giving unconditional cash transfers for extra support.
How do you see the food crisis impacting Compassion program countries globally?
The food crisis is definitely impacting Compassion families across the globe. Right now, children are not able to thrive in an environment where there is no food or there is little access to food. The situation at hand is that people are starving and they need food to continue with the rest of the Compassion program.
So this food crisis is forcing us to have conversations about longevity and sustainability. Compassion, just like any other organisation, is having to deal with multiple hazards across the different communities where we work. Severe droughts are further compounded by inflation and insecurity, conflict and political unrest. We are forced to think outside the box to see how we can sustainably set up our families to be prepared for future shocks.
Why is there an urgency to respond to the food crisis now?
I paid a visit to Karamoja, Uganda and I witnessed firsthand families that have malnourished children and elders. We saw a few graves of people who have died due to starvation or starvation-related complications.
This was really sobering for me. It's easy to read and talk about the food crisis, but it's difficult when you see children who are under 3 years old, or children hanging onto the breasts of their mothers, but the breast does not produce any milk, because there can be no milk if the mother didn’t eat. So yes, the food crisis is a direct threat to lives. I've seen that in Northern Uganda and I'm seeing that in Kenya. By responding to the food crisis, we are essentially saving lives.
How is the food crisis impacting families in Karamoja?
I interacted with a family in Kotido, and a caregiver of a child in the Compassion program really stood out for me because she was holding a child who was malnourished.
I was concerned because I said, "you're a caregiver in the Compassion program, why is your child not fed?" And she said that the food did come from the Compassion church partner, enough to feed her family, but she’s had to support families, relatives and neighbours who are not in the Compassion program. This means that food that is supposed to serve her and her children for one month is only serving her for about one week, because she must share the rations with her community.
It was difficult for me to watch because this is somebody who is already within our programming. However, whatever is meant for them must spread thin across the community because people are starving around her.
She told me that she does not have the heart to say no to her neighbours or relatives when they come asking for the food because they're hungry.
So, the rations that we give are serving almost half or less of the time they're supposed to serve the participants.
Why is sponsorship not enough to support children and families through the global food crisis?
That’s a good question. Why is it not enough and why do we need more? We need more because we are serving families in a world that is not the world that we had three years ago. Three years ago, we were serving people that were already vulnerable. We are now serving in a post-COVID world—a world that is still feeling the effects of COVID-19. The pandemic took away jobs and livelihoods, and people were just starting to recover. Instead of us having and seeing a robust recovery, we are now dealing with drought, food insecurity, conflict, political unrest and economic inflation.
We’re not only dealing with the food crisis, but we’re dealing with a food crisis among people who are already suffering the effects of other stresses, which is further aggravating the lack of jobs, which is further aggravating the diversification of livelihoods. We need more to support these families to bounce back from multiple stresses.
What would the consequence be for families if they did not receive food?
I'm sad to say this, but they will likely die. Some could be exploited for child labour, some could go onto the street.
While in Karamoja, one of the ladies who we met in Lorengedwat mentioned to me that she's taking care of her five grandchildren because her daughter died and left her with the children. She has three with her that are under 5 years old, and all these three that we saw were malnourished. This lady has had to send two of her children away to work for these children to be paid a small amount of money so that they can send it back home.
I was curious to find out how old these children were. One was 8 and one was 10. This is a child who is so young and is likely to be exposed to various child protection issues that I don't even want to begin to imagine. So, if we do not respond to the food crisis, essentially these children could die.
Can you share some of the ways that Compassion is responding to the food crisis globally?
The national office sits together with the local church because the church understands the culture and needs of their communities and, with the resources available, they can put together the contents of a food pack.
The food pack is often designed to fit what the people in that locality need, what is locally available and what they eat. We give the food packs to them to be able to serve the families for at least 30 days with at least two to three meals a day. A family of five or six should be able to feed themselves based on the food pack. The food packs differ depending on the location. They also differ depending on access and availability in the locality. And lastly, it has to be nutritionally sound.
Why does the food crisis matter right now? Why is the local church and Compassion best placed to respond to the needs of communities?
The food crisis matters today because we have a humanitarian imperative, as Christians and as human beings, to support other human beings and save lives. I think that is the first order of business—to save lives.
The food crisis is affecting the most basic need of human existence, which is food. So by supporting the response to the food crisis, we are essentially saving lives. I don't think there is any way of putting this across other than the food crisis is a direct threat to human lives.
It's difficult to understand what starvation looks like if you have never starved. I understand that. However, it's equally difficult to sit back and do nothing if there are people who are starving and we have the potential to do something to help them.
Can you give an example of an effective sustainability initiative that you've seen at Compassion?
I was looking forward to a sustainability question because that is essentially what we try to achieve through resilience building. Today, we’re feeding families who are starving, who do not have an alternative in terms of where to find food.
If we only feed that family today and we don’t go further and check, “can you support yourselves? Do you have a livelihood? Do you have something that you can do to bring income into this home?”, it means that next year, if the crisis persists, we are still going to be feeding that family.
But what sustainability speaks to is, “I feed you today, and when you’re able to stand on your own two feet after your life is saved, then we talk sustainability.” Now we ask, “what is it you need? Is it tools for agriculture? Is it knowledge? Is it training on carpentry, on animal husbandry, on business, on savings? What exactly do you need to be resilient and independent, so that you can start on your own two feet?”
And then it is very easy for such a person to bounce back if there is a hazard that affects them, as opposed to somebody who is needy but doesn’t have an alternative source of income. A person who is not resilient becomes a participant who receives food today, will receive food in 2023 and who will receive food in 2024 and beyond if we do not intercept and find alternative ways of adding income in that home. Essentially, sustainability must be at the centre of what we do.
You can answer hunger with hope with a gift of $50 that will feed a family facing the global food crisis for a month.
Words by Faith Magadi with field reporting by Rachel Lauer
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