Don’t forget the little ones

‘Not all of us can do great things but we can all do small things with great love.’

Mother Teresa

Name me a country affected by famine in Africa. Chances are you thought of either Ethiopia or Somalia, and not surprisingly, given these countries have experience massive food shortages, which we have witnessed over our lifetimes in shocking television imagery.

Although conflict and internal political disarray can lead to famine within national borders, the absence of rain doesn’t see lines on a map. Food insecurity hits regions, rather than nations. In telling the story of regional devastation, it’s easy to overlook the smaller players.

East Africa hasn’t seen rain for five years. In Djibouti, a country bordering Ethiopia, most of the population are farmers. But the severe drought has forced them to the capital Djibouti City, in search of work, to earn money to buy food. Thousands of people are living in slums literally built on the rubbish other people have thrown away.

Djibouti is small, with a population of 906,000 (UN 2011) across 8,950 sq miles. A bit part in the story of the East Africa crisis. When people are starving, it is no minor matter, but when you’ve got less than a million people living in your country and your children are dying, the impact of such a massive humanitarian disaster is even more devastating.

Whenever we hear about East Africa it seems like we are only being asked for a small response – to donate a small amount of money, and it’s esy to wonder whether this will actually make any impact at all. On May 27, several famous people will ask us to donate, in a series of short films made for Socceraid. One of these films was made by actress Keeley Hawes who travelled to Djibouti to see for herself. After my exploits Living Below the Line, I got to speak to as part of a UNICEF-led Google hangout earlier this week.

Keeley was very ordinary, very down-to-earth, and spoke about her trip in the same way some of my friends might have if they had gone. She has the prominence that my friends don’t to make her voice, and therefore the voices of East Africa’s children, heard where otherwise they’d fall on deaf ears.

I have always wondered what one person, famous or not, can really achieve, even as part of a large charity like UNICEF, who co-ordinated the visit? Do we have any power or ability to change anything? So I asked her.

‘The scale of it is so enormous I couldn’t imagine wanting to adopt or take someone out of the situation – first because they are really happy with their families and there’s a huge sense of community – but because you can’t save just ONE child,’ she replied.

Keeley was particularly struck by one little girl she met on her trip called Selma, who, like one in four children in Djibouti was severely malnourished. Aged five, she has never lived in a time where there has been food available from a place other than a UNICEF feeding centre.

‘Everyone was so happy and so pleased to see us, the kids wanted us to play and throw a ball with them and they loved to sing ‘We are family’! They were just joyous. But Selma is very badly malnourished and was very different to the others, with no strength to speak or move. All for the sake of peanut paste. This is so huge this problem, I did wonder how it can ever be helped. “This is a nightmare,” I thought. But the money is getting to them and the peanut paste is being bought. I saw it happen and saw how donated money makes a difference.

‘The problem is so huge, you want to help them all. So I’m glad to try to show people how bad it is and hope that that will help on a bigger scale than me going over to hand out bottles of water.

‘It is awful and you do want to give them everything. But I realized that even what I’ve got wouldn’t go very far, and this is better thing to do.

‘One of the nice things is that I can see how much difference I’ve made – rather selfishly you want to know how many fivers you’ve got out of people. I feel really grateful that I was asked to go and do something and to make a difference.’

Let’s not forget the world’s little ones, when all we’re being asked to do is a small thing. Even knowing what we do about something overwhelming and systemically wrong, we admit defeat, instead of lending our strength to organisations like UNICEF, which can offer the sophisticated, coherent and long term response required when famine strikes across state borders.

We can be empowered to do the little that we can. Take a trip, make a film, write a blogpost, tweet to your friends, donate a fiver. It’s not Nobel prizewinning aid work, but it might help save a child’s life. And that’s no small thing at all.

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