Archive - July, 2011

Why Somalia Matters

A rudimentary health clinic in the bush.

Twenty years ago, I sat at a wooden table under a plastic tarp eating cereal in powdered milk made of charcoal-filtered water at a refugee camp near Luuq, Somalia. It was the sparest of conditions.

In the corner of my eye, I saw a young man and woman with an older woman sit down near a thorn fence a few hundred feet away. The young woman held a baby.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I joked and teased each other as the sun rose.

After we finished breakfast, a Somali-speaking staff interpreter came to the doctor who sat across from me and took him to the young couple. The young mother handed her baby to the doctor.

I was startled when I heard him shouting curse words. As we had eaten breakfast, they had waited politely and the malnourished child had died.

Hearing this, I became sick to my stomach, not to mention overwhelmed with a load of grief.

That was Somalia 20 years ago, in a massive famine in which millions of Somalis were displaced from their desiccated rangelands. Herds on which they depended for survival were dead and dying. Wells they used across the entire territory were dry. Food could not be found. Famine stalked the vast Ogaden rangelands across the breadth of Somalia and into Ethiopia.

Today, the news from Somalia is as grim. How the country got there is no secret. It’s been a failed state for 20 years.

Drought and conflict

Mother cooking in Somali village near a refugee encampment.

Periodic drought has resulted in famine about every 10 years. What’s different today, according to the U.N. World Food Programme, is changing weather patterns that make drought more common, giving the people and the land less time to recover.

Drought tips the scale, but conflict has been a persistent contributing factor. Famines in 1973, 1984 and 1992 were preceded by intractable conflict.

This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices.

The 10 million estimated by the United Nations to need food assistance today does not approach the 1992 figure of 23 million, according to the BBC. However, reaching them is more difficult. The BBC reports al-Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents who control the south, has threatened the lives of U.N. staff and imposed unacceptable operating conditions, including informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP.

These recurring conditions — both natural and human-caused — contribute to a sense of futility and donor fatigue that’s dangerous. Those affected by famine are the most vulnerable in this troubled region — children, women and girls, and the elderly. They have not created the conditions that threaten their lives. They are least equipped to deal with famine.

The warlord problem

E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group counsels international donors to see the current crisis as an opportunity to establish a relationship with moderates in al-Shabab and attempt to woo them away from terrorism. He suggests the humanitarian response must empower people and not warlords. And he cautions against aid as a component of military operations.

As I traveled through southern Somalia several years ago, locals told me of their frustration with a U.N. repatriation program for warlords conducted under the guise of establishing order. The locals claimed that the United Nations helped warlords who had fled the country after Said Barre’s regime fell, enabling them to return and putting them in charge of administering regional civil infrastructure. The result was the empowerment of the very group that had fractured and destroyed the country in the first place.

Young girl at a health clinic in the Somali bush.

Despite the international frustrations, children, young people and adults are still dying of hunger and related causes today in Somalia, and the world cannot stand by without making an effort to provide the help they need to survive. Somalia is a challenge to our humanity and the conscience of the world. We must not turn away from the innocent.

Called to act

The image of the couple with their baby 20 years ago still haunts me. It motivates me. Where we can, we must prevent children from dying for lack of food. We must be agents of life.

The neglect of Somalia also reminds us that the world is no more secure than its weakest, most vulnerable people, no matter where they are located. For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.

Somalia is not a distant place on the Horn of Africa, nor is the suffering of the Somali people of no consequence to us. As a person of faith who follows Jesus, I am called by his teachings about human worth and my responsibility to my neighbor to be concerned and to act. As a citizen of the world, I know my own desire for peace and a fruitful future is at risk by the unaddressed need for peace and stability in Somalia.

For benevolent reasons, for the well-being of the Somali people and our own, and for global security,  the world cannot ignore Somalia. As I have breakfast today, I know that babies are dying, and faithful discipleship and responsible global citizenship compel me to act.


The Givewell Blog discusses giving to Somali relief with descriptions of agencies currently on the ground. The United Methodist Committee on Relief reports preparation is under way with partners to respond to the crisis.

Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation

Here are some facts I wish I didn’t know:

•One in five children in my state of Tennessee is at risk of hunger.

•One in three persons receiving assistance from our middle Tennessee food bank is under the age of 18.

•More than one in six Tennesseans receive food stamps, and the numbers of people needing assistance is growing. In fact, between mid-2007 and mid-2009, the number of people receiving food stamp assistance grew 66 percent.

Nationally One in Four Children Face Hunger

But this is not just a Tennessee crisis. Nationally, one in four children are at risk of going to bed hungry. The number of Americans in need is at the highest number in 51 years of recordkeeping. The weight of the recession, disasters like floods and tornadoes, harsh winters, rising food and fuel costs, a jobless recovery, escalating medical costs and a lack of affordable housing has taken its toll on a large portion of Americans that look a lot like you and me.

Jaynee Day, President and CEO of Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee

To understand this problem better, I recently spent some time with Jaynee Day, the president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. She gave me some important insights into these families in need.
Many of us assume that the hungry are homeless, but that is not the case. The homeless represent less than 19% of those in need. Those experiencing food insecurity are mostly seniors, children and working families. Some 60% of those helped have jobs. But because of underemployment and low paying jobs, these “working poor” families may be struggling with more than one minimum wage job and still not making ends meet. One third of those served in food banks every month must make a decision between buying food and paying utilities.

In many metropolitan areas, like Nashville, a majority of the children are participants in some type of reduced or free lunch program. Currently, in our metropolitan school district, 73% of the children are part of such a program.  But even free lunch programs are not enough for some families. Teachers often notice children coming to school on Monday mornings hungry, and as a result, they are not performing to their maximum ability. Children need adequate and consistent nutrition to achieve in school.

To alleviate this need, a backpack program was originally developed in Arkansas, after a school nurse asked for help because hungry students were coming to her with stomach aches and dizziness. The local food bank began to provide the school children with groceries in non-descript backpacks to carry home.

Today, food banks like Second Harvest partner with faith communities and civic groups to assist in feeding these children. I was heartened to find out that United Methodist churches throughout the country are a large part of this program. What started as a pilot program in 1995 has spread to 3600 programs serving some 190,000 children in 2009.

It’s a small thing really. A typical backpack food bag includes two canned entrees, two fruit cups, two cereals, 100 percent fruit juice, shelf-stable milk, and a snack. The bag of food is small enough to fit in a backpack, but large enough to make a difference in the future of a child.

As needs grow, Jaynee Day faces growing concerns. Cuts at the federal level will only put more pressure on agencies like Second Harvest to provide for children and families. Day told me that faith-based groups are key to food bank programs across the country.  United Methodist churches are spreading the word about the need and providing funds, food supplies, and volunteers.

Now when I read “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2, I will be thinking about small backpacks filled with love for America’s children.

Billy Shore on “No Kid Hungry”

A Guest Post by Billy Shore

As the school year draws to a close and summer stretches out before us, America’s poorest school children find themselves at even greater risk than usual.  Because, when the school’s doors close so does the prospect of meals for many kids who rely on school lunch and school breakfast.

More than 20 million American children get a free or reduced price school lunch, and although all 20 million are eligible for meals in the summer too, only 3 million get it.  That’s because not enough school districts take the necessary steps to establish alternative sites.  The irony, and this may be Washington D.C.’s best kept billion dollar secret, is that the federal government reimburses 100% of the cost of the meals served, which means budget strapped state and local governments could also benefit from dollars that come in to buy milk from local dairy farmers, bread from local bakers, and so forth.

The real problem is that these children are not only vulnerable, they are voiceless. They don’t belong to powerful membership organizations or have highly paid lobbyists.  They depend on average, caring citizens like us to be their voice. That’s why Share Our Strength has committed to spend $1.6 million this summer in 35 states to help establish summer meal sites and raise awareness among parents so they can ensure meals for their children.

Everyone has a strength to share, and everyone has a role to play in our No Kid Hungry campaign.  The need has never been greater. The recession has left 48 million Americans living below the poverty line and more than 22 million children on food stamps (which we now call the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for the first time in the history of the country. Go to www.strength.org to see how you can get involved.

This guest post is from Bill Shore, the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength®, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. Shore is also the chairman of Community Wealth Ventures®, Inc., a for-profit subsidiary of Share Our Strength that offers strategy and implementation services to foundations and nonprofit organizations. Shore founded Share Our Strength in 1984 in response to the Ethiopian famine and subsequently renewed concern about hunger in the United States.  Shore is also an author.  His most recent book is The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, published in November 2010, which documents the lifelong efforts of researchers to end malaria.

 

Joy Comes With the Morning

The psalmist writes that joy comes with the morning. It follows a night of weeping, he says.  But my night wasn’t like that. I dreamed sweet dreams. Taking photographs and maintaining motorcycles.

Now I couldn’t wait for the day to begin. I awoke a little after four. It was still dark and I was waiting anxiously for dawn.

I started the coffemaker, ground the beans and got milk ready to heat.

Outside the air is cool. I sit and wait for the sun. Critters are stirring. A hummingbird works its way through the flowers taking long sips preparing for the day.

Dew on the grass glistens like Christmas sparkles and a fog sneaks in. It turns the morning air blue and snuffs out the sun.

A chipmunk bounds across the yard, hopping high as if he can avoid getting wet. I laugh.

Robins, redbirds and mockingbirds sing. The distinctive song of a rufus-sided-towhee stands out. It shyly scatters the ground under a hydrangea searching for breakfast.

Two Carolina wrens peck at the fennel seeds I planted yesterday. Then one hops rambunctiously through nearby flowers, chattering all the while. Ounce-for-ounce these little birds are the most self-confident and loud residents in the backyard.

A Downy woodpecker, who thinks we hung the nectar feeder especially for him, lands on the leucaena tree and searches it momentarily for insects. But he’s really come for the nectar. He takes a perch and drinks, frequently looking skyward for attackers.

While this has been going on the swallowtail caterpillar I put under a protective net yesterday has morphed into a chrysalis. I continue to be awed by this transformation.

Engrossed in this symphony of life, I notice the fog has burned away. The dew is gone, and it’s getting hot.

To borrow from Dolly Parton’s wonderful song, “I can see the light of a clear blue morning. Everything’s gonna be alright, gonna be OK.”

Morning is a gateway to hope and a cause for joy. Every day is truly a new day.

Hearing the songs of creation and watching its players, I’m reminded that all of us, we two-legged creatures, the winged ones and the four-legged, are connected.  It’s so easy to forget and overlook.

But, in the light of this clear blue morning, chuckling as the little ground squirrel vainly tries to hop above the wet grass, or the cocky wren loudly proclaims his presence; as the woodpecker unabashedly indulges himself and the hummingbird cartwheels and caroms, it’s apparent. We’re bound together.

We, too, are made to soar, and even to run through wet grass if we choose. We “shall mount up with wings like eagles…run and not be weary…walk and not faint,” when we claim our place in the Creation and come into right relationship with the Creator.

We are made to sing and dance and celebrate this gracious gift called life. And we are reminded of this with each new dawn, and of the loving creator who blesses it all.
__________________

I posted some morning photos here.

What songs or new revelations at dawn have you experienced and are willing to share?