WHD 2013

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Building the buffer- helping families into the future

by Katie Seaborne, Save the Children (Bamako, Mali)

We are not yet over the worst here in Mali but the end is in sight. The rains have been pouring heavily for the past month – meaning animals can drink at water-points again and the land has turned from a red dirt to a luscious green. Predictions for this year’s harvest are good and in the coming weeks all hands will be on deck to plough the fields.

Despite this hopeful outlook, sadly our teams here know that families in this region will continue to be plunged into life-threatening hunger crises unless we take more decisive and longer-sighted action and tackle the underlying causes.

As a result ‘resilience’ has become the buzz word of this crisis –meaning families need to be supported all year around so that they have enough of a buffer to survive in times of crisis. But turning that rhetoric into action is the hard part. Save the Children teams have been working across the Sahel region of West Africa since the beginning of the year and have now reached over a million people. Thankfully our teams are well-placed to support families to recover from this crisis and to be resistant to being thrown back into crisis in the future.

Recently I made long and bumpy 5 hour journey from Bamako, the capital of Mali to Kayes region in the West of the country where Save the Children teams are working around the clock in response to the crisis. Kayes has been one of the hardest hit regions –over 38,000 children have been admitted into health centres to receive treatment for acute malnutrition so far this year. It’s swelteringly hot and with the recent downpours the landscape has changed dramatically- fields are flush with crops and barren trees have flourished. Mud huts with straw roofs scatter the landscape and the oxen pull the wooden ploughs, creating perfect furrows in their wake. Yes I know peaceful rural scenes mask a deeper, more tragic reality for the communities here.

Save the Children teams have been delivering life-saving assistance to families in this region since earlier this year. We know that handing out food packages may save a life that week, but will not save a life in the longer term. For that reason we have been finding innovative ways to support families’ ability to earn an income, including vouchers that entitle them to animal fodder or seeds in the local markets. One of the people who received this help was Sayon.  I met Sayon in his village, under the shade of a tree. Wearing a simple blue robe, with greying hair and a deeply lined face, Sayon has a calming, wise quality.  As he explained his precarious livelihood and the devastating consequence that had on his family, I realised his situation perfectly demonstrates the ongoing and underlying causes of this crisis.

“I live in this village- I have lived here all my life. I live with my two wives and eleven children. I am a farmer and always have been - I farm sorghum, millet and corn, which are the main things we all eat here. We eat everything I grow – we cannot sell any of it for money because we need all of it to eat.”

Sayon continued to quietly talk about his livelihood and means of survival, explaining how the minute his crops are at risk – their lives are at risk. I could see Sayon’s neighbours’ and friends’ heads nodding in agreement.

“I grew only a third of what I usually grow this year. This is because the rains were not strong enough. The food ran out quickly and I had to do other things to get us by, for example I helped out other families in the village – helping them in their fields or homes with odd jobs. The impact on the family was that we lacked enough to eat. I could just about provide two meals a day – other families had to help us out. Three of my children had to leave in search of work and food- they are 40, 30 and 22 years old.  They send money back to us occasionally. During the dry season they go into the bush and cut down trees for fire wood, to sell. I also have two children suffering from malnutrition – they were diagnosed by the community health worker as malnourished. They are receiving treatment from the nearest health post.”

The instant and severe impacts echo those that have been felt by thousands of families across the Sahel – the most vulnerable members of the family- the children under five - becoming malnourished, the older children leaving home to find work, the father searching the local villages for any opportunity to make money. His family had been torn apart by hunger.

I asked Sayon about the assistance he had received from Save the Children and he started to speak more confidently and positively,

‘I own two horses, two oxen and three goats. One of the horses nearly died as it wasn’t getting enough food – he was very thin and very sick. But after receiving the animal fodder vouchers, we could feed him and he is recovering. The oxen were also not moving as they were so weak. But we also could feed them with the help from Save the Children and now they are recovering also. You see, the animals must be strong and healthy to plough the fields – otherwise it’s impossible for us to plough the fields and feed ourselves. I was very worried about how we were going to take care of the animals and how they were going to survive. I really like the voucher system – I am very happy to receive the vouchers. Otherwise it would have been a catastrophe.”

I could see the impact this innovative assistance was having on Sayon’s ability to earn a living and pull his family back from the brink of disaster. Thankfully, our teams have been able to deliver this support to over 3,500 people and we are continuing to deliver this support. However, we know that our life-saving activities are not enough. We must support families, like Sayon’s, past the harvest, past the end of the year and into the future. Only then are we living up to our mission to do our best for children in this region.


  1. Excellent work of Save the Children in Mali. But it's key to teach people how to harvest rainwater in ponds and grow drought-resistant crops.

  2. Help from donors is still not enough. They still don't understand the magnitude of the Sahel crisis.

  3. And what is the role being played by private companies in the crisis? Are they supporting with funds the fight against the crisis?