The rains have arrived in Nigeria since my last visit in March, washing away some of the harmattan dust that previously shrouded the city in a red haze. The country is now in its planting season, with farmers taking advantage of the regular rainfall to sow their seeds. While my colleagues have been celebrating the fact that they can now sleep comfortably in cooler temperatures, Nigeria has entered it’s lean season; belts are tightened to bridge the gap between last year’s produce running out, and this year’s crops being ready to harvest.
On my first day back in Abuja in April, a friend and fellow aid worker attended a meeting of UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations called in light of the emergency – and likely famine – that was looming in the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.
North-east Nigeria has long suffered from geographical marginalisation and chronic underdevelopment, but it was the rise of Boko Haram that brought the region to international attention. The conflict provoked by the group has led to the deaths of more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. Of those displaced, nearly 80% live in host communities – those who were already living in poverty before they opened their doors to those fleeing violence.
Agricultural production has stalled and food insecurity has gained a terrifying momentum. After eight years of conflict, reports from the north-east are that virtually no one is planting. Instead, families eat their remaining seedlings in order to survive. In September last year, the UN assistant secretary-general, Toby Lanzer, warned that Nigeria faced “a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere”.
Famine is something I’ve long been able to visualise – I’d seen Band Aid re-runs at Christmas, after all. But until recently, it was something I did not know how to quantify. There is a huge number of extremely hungry people in the world, but when famine was declared in South Sudan in February, it was the first the world had seen in six years. At what point does extreme hunger, malnutrition and even death become a famine?
Famine is the last of five stages of food insecurity, according to the the internationally accepted Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale. Shifting from humanitarian emergency – stage four – to famine requires hitting indicators in three areas: calorie intake (20% of the population on less than 2,100 calories per day), malnutrition (30% of children acutely malnourished), and death rates (two deaths per 10,000 people, or four deaths per 10,000 children, per day).
It’s a grizzly scale, but an important one. Famine is a politically weighty word that can attract huge attention and large sums of money. Using a globally recognised scale of measurement protects the word from hyperbolic misuse, so when it is announced, it is taken seriously.
‘The world doesn’t respond until children are dying’
I spent time in South Sudan in 2015. I remember sitting in sweaty expat hangouts in Juba, listening to aid workers talk about parts of the country that were running out of food, and to journalists who said a story about a country close to famine wouldn’t sell. Famine was declared in February 2017, but it had been discussed since early 2014.
My Nigerian colleagues have seen this famine coming for years. This is the cruel irony – by the time food insecurity starts to acquire the F-word label, it’s too late. As the foreign minister of Somaliland, Saad Ali Shire, said recently: “The international community does not seem to respond until there are emaciated and dying children on their TV screens.”
More than half of the estimated 8.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Nigeria are children, but when it comes to raising humanitarian funding, a photo of one actually starving child can be worth more than 8.5 million children at risk of starvation.
In January, the UN issued an appeal for .05 bn to reach 6.9 million people in north-east Nigeria, predictably far too late to avert what is eight years in the making. As of May, only m had been donated, and the UN response is due to run out of money at any time.
The situation is desperately sad and not likely to improve any time soon. There’s enough money in the world to deal with crises such as this, at least in the short term. I also believe there is enough empathy to want to help, and enough brainpower to do so effectively, through short-term fixes and long-term solutions. But somehow all three of these factors get lost in a web of apathy and bureaucracy, fear-mongering and distrust.
Perhaps the first step to cutting through the web is to understand and engage a little more. That way, people suffering on the other side of the world will not remain an anonymous other, or as Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say, a “single story” to be pitied, but otherwise ignored.
Amy Harrison is a technical specialist in gender and conflict, currently working with Social Development Direct. The views shared here are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the official position of Social Development Direct.
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