Causes

#850calories

The World Food Programme and UNHCR recently announced that refugees across Africa are facing dramatic cuts in their food rations. The new, reduced WFP rations equate to around 850 calories, a figure that inspired a new campaign that hopes to generate awareness of the dramatic food ration cuts in camps across Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania and Uganda.

Yep, that’s a lot of refugees – an estimated 800,000 – in a lot of countries, living on less than half their recommended daily calorie intake (for reference, average recommended calorie intakes are 1,000-1,400 for children under 5, 2,000 for adult women, and 2,500 for adult men).

So, why have the WFP cut rations so dramatically? To put it simply, they are facing a funding gap of $186 million; and in the absence of these essential funds, food supply sheds are becoming increasingly bare and rations are being reduced in order to be shared over a largely-food-dependent refugee population. As has been well documented in the UNHCR’S three-part Tracks blog series, lack of food availability has devastating consequences for refugees, who respond to such crises by utilising ‘negative coping strategies’. These strategies may include turning to forms of dangerous and exploitative labour such as prostitution, selling off of assets such as livestock, unsustainably over-exploiting natural resources such as firewood, and removing children from education in order to generate more income.

Undoubtedly, the immediate solution here is to find the $186 million. This funding is needed in order to restore current food supply back to full rations, to address the “unacceptable” levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia in camps, and to prevent the likelihood of further ration cuts later in the year. Without this funding, food insecurity in camps will persist, and could ultimately escalate to the point of famine. As the 850calories campaign writes, “the world is facing a famine inside the UN’s refugee camps.”

However, this crisis will not be ‘solved’ once the international community has closed the funding gap and returned refugee camp food rations to normal quantities. This disaster has to be seen not as the failure of the UNHCR, nor of the WFP, nor of a single state or refugee population. This disaster is a collective failure, and one which represents the failures and inadequacies of the current international refugee regime. Without addressing these inadequacies and putting other policies and strategies in place, this crisis will, unfortunately, occur again. There are three main reasons for why this crisis will not be solved simply by closing the $186 million funding gap:

  1. Many refugees in Africa live in semi-permanent protracted camp settlements (i.e. camps which have existed for more than five years, in which refugees are largely dependent on humanitarian assistance). These camps would have initially been designed to be short-term, emergency-response-driven settlements in order to provide protection and assistance to refugees, but in many cases across Africa have now existed for over a decade. It must be noted that many such camps are characterised by self-sufficient and income-generating livelihood activities; but humanitarian assistance continues to play a vital role in providing not only food assistance, but other services such as health and education.
  2. In the midst of ongoing conflict, the refugee population continues to grow: in December 2013, for example, the UNHCR estimated that South Sudanese refugees were arriving into neighbouring countries at a rate of around 1000 a day. The humanitarian community is therefore under pressure not only to protect and assist existing refugee populations, but to also be able to cope with increasing numbers of refugees arriving into camps every day.
  3. Finding money is getting harder. For example, Martin Ohlsen, the WFP Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a recent interview spoke of ‘donor fatigue’; of the effects of the global financial crisis; and of the increasing number of crisis ‘hot spots’ in the world. He argued that “donations are rather for current crisis regions, such as Syria”, and that as a result aid organisations are all competing for available funds. Although it is imperative that the $186 million funding is provided in order to solve this current African refugee food crisis, it is clear that funding challenges will remain in the future as protracted refugee camp settlements and ongoing conflicts continue to demand humanitarian assistance alongside other global crises.

The fact that this current crisis has gone relatively unnoticed in the Western media is a disaster in itself, but also ill acts in parallel to the challenges of drumming up the necessary funding. As was described by blogger Tom Murphy (who tweets at @viewfromthecave) in a recent article: “Media reports, including one I wrote, shared the announcement and then moved on”.

And as those media reports move on, the WFP food stocks continue to dwindle and hundreds of thousands of African refugees continue to go hungry.

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#stopthemission

I am a member of the reality TV generation. Big Brother made the UK go crazy when I was 10 and there have been god-knows how many terrible versions of that since then. I don’t like any of these programs, I should note, but nobody my age could possibly deny knowledge of them and their various formats. I don’t even really remember when MTV played music on it. Pretty depressing right?

Wrong.

When I read this post about a ‘humanitarian reality TV show’ featuring refugees (actually, internally displaced people but who wants any facts ruining ‘reality’ tv?) I couldn’t believe it was real. It sounds like a dark joke in some terrifying dystopian comedy. I looked for a listing of the show but couldn’t find any. I hoped it was an internet invention, like alots or bonsai kittens. It’s quite hard to check because the sites are in Italian and, being an ignorant Englishman, I only speak my mother tongue. Luckily, I had a kindly Italian friend on call to check it out.

It is most definitely a real thing. Here are her notes on what she could find out about the format:

  • program, created in collaboration with UNHCR and Intersos
  • 8 VIPs put into 4 pairs
  • live for 15 days in close contact and collaborate with volunteers from missionaries in Mali, South Sudan and Congo
  • all adventures/stories told in the studio
  • objective is to share experience, raise awareness of the issue

Where to begin! The original post on African Voices articulates well the myriad of issues surrounding making a spectacle out of some of the most vulnerable human beings on earth. 15 days seems an appropriate amount of time for a humanitarian effort, particularly one spread across three enormous and incredibly different countries. The VIPs are a couple of actresses, a journalist, a prince:

“…the kind of people you see on TV all the time, talk shows and things, TV presenters. Whether it’s a dancing show, cooking show, politics talk show, or humanitarian reality show, TV presenters in Italy never change”

Which is reassuring to those people who might, I don’t know, think that UNHCR has lost its damn mind. Television isn’t responsible for making informed, nuanced television about poverty or about Africa – The Newsroom and its exalted writer Aaron Sorkin showed us that only recently. We know TV executives to be cretinous and lazy but, goddamnit, the UNHCR should know better.

Of course, because we know that television is full of uninformed, gawking lunatics doesn’t mean we should forgive them for dreaming up this dizzying new low of bad taste.  We need to tell them off, undoubtedly, or this crap will keep happening. Sign this petition to shout back. Tweet UNHCR about it, call them, email them, write them a letter, protest outside their offices, construct a crude macro image to mock them – do something!

For some reason, people in charge of television seem to think that we want this stuff. Inevitably, as a member of the reality TV generation I assume that a) this is about me, the viewer and b) I can somehow affect the outcome of this situation. Maybe this last decade or so of terrible television has been useful after all – as a generation, we expect to be able to alter television. This is the kind of activism we have been training our whole lives for.

UNHCR Italy is on twitter. It should be quick easy enough to fill up there timeline with the thoughts of sane human beings. Use #stopthemission, it might get them to at least clarify what they are thinking.

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