Preventing malnutrition and famine

Food is a complex issue. In the majority of wars, food is used as a weapon. It is of course the civilian population that suffers, rather than the enemy soldiers. The role of MSF in preventing famine is thus one of advocacy - doing what we can to argue on behalf of stricken communities, alerting the world to their plight, attempting to take them out of the firing line. Even at the level of an individual child, malnutrition is rarely a simple consequence of inadequate food. Infectious diseases play a major role. With a bout of diarrhoea, for example, a child loses its appetite and then weight; this puts him or her more at risk to another infection, which further weakens the body and causes loss of weight. This cycle of infections quickly leads to malnutrition. MSF health projects attempt to break this cycle by providing basic health care to all members of a community. Children need to be fully immunised and to have access to curative care when they fall sick with infections. Health and nutrition education of mothers is an important element. An example - Famine in Southern Sudan In mid-1998, famine hit the Bahr-el-Ghazal region of Southern Sudan. In fact, it had been a long time coming, and was the culmination of two successive years of poor harvests, due to drought and flood, as well as the drawn-out war between the North and the South. The international movement of MSF already had teams in the region, and these were massively reinforced. The activities we launched included:
  • setting up therapeutic feeding centres for the severely malnourished;
  • providing medical care in the affected areas;
  • providing supplementary feeding for at-risk people;
  • performing nutrition surveys in order to monitor the situation and to have sound information to use for advocacy purposes;
  • engaging in advocacy with the organisations responsible for general food distribution, to try ensure that it was sufficient to prevent more people becoming malnourished;
  • calling publicly for an indefinite prolongation of the cease-fire between the Government and rebel forces. This objectives of this advocacy were to allow humanitarian aid to continue and, just as importantly, to allow hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return home and tend to their crops so as to avoid a repetition of the famine during the following year.