• The complexity of Afghanistan's hunger crisis

The complexity of Afghanistan's hunger crisis

08 January 2014

According to a recent New York Times article, hunger is threatening Afghan children in increasing numbers.  200 severely malnourished children a month are admitted alone to Bost Hospital in the capital of Helmand Province.  300 more are being treated in its out-patient feeding programme. The article demonstrates the complex issues facing nutrition programmes in the country. 

Whilst other global hunger crises may be sparked by a crop failure or other food shortages, Afghanistan faces broader, long-term problems.  These include low levels of nutrition awareness amongst mothers, conflict and explosive remnants of war (ERW) denying families access to crops and lack of access for many to safe water if they choose to use powdered baby milk. The 2013 Annual Report of the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) indicated that over 544.9 sq km of land is contaminated with mines and ERW, directly affecting 1,688 communities and 1,313,341 people, whilst indirectly affecting the whole Afghan population.

As with so many development needs in Afghanistan, reducing child malnutrition requires a multi-faceted and coordinated approach.  

This is not just a health problem.  But with the looming prospect of reduced donor funding, there are serious concerns that the incoming Afghan government won’t have the finances or the political will to address these issues.  Jawed Nader, BAAG Director, who is in Kabul at the moment reports that ‘none of the 11 Presidential hopefuls consider fighting poverty as a top agenda’.

If international funding remains committed at least to humanitarian relief then perhaps some children will survive. 

In just the last few months, the World Food Programme has taken positive steps to address hunger by opening a Strategic Grain Reserve in Kabul.  This centre will store enough grain to feed 2 million people for up to six months in an emergency.  Others are planned around the country.  But, whilst critical and welcomed, these will provide only a sticking-plaster fix.

The Afghan government’s own Country Position Paper for the 2012 Rio+20 Conference indicated that 36 percent (9 million Afghans) of the population cannot meet their basic requirements such as access to food, clean water, clothing and shelter. 

What is telling about the New York Times story is the comment that better-nourished parents are bringing in their sick and starving children.  Child malnourishment seems to be as much about poor dietary choices by their parents (through necessity or ignorance) as much as it is about limited access to food full stop. 

This brings us back to the complexity of nutrition in Afghanistan.  Agriculture, which used to account for 50% of the nation’s GDP before the Soviet invasion, is severely restricted by inadequate irrigation infrastructure, unpredictable rain volumes, land mine contamination and the lure of poppy cultivation. 

Nutrition education is complicated by the restrictive and closeted lifestyle of many Afghan women, ingrained cultural childrearing practices, high illiteracy rates and lack of internet or media access.  Ante-natal health care for many remote rural women and their infants is virtually unheard of, denying preventative measures that lead to life-threatening situations.   Grain reserves or increased emergency paediatric services tackle only small parts of the wider problem.

As the article explains, emergency support is being provided by Medecins Sans Frontiers and other international NGOs, along with government-run medical facilities.  But for every child lucky enough to make it to these paediatric clinics, there are likely to be countless others who don’t.  And alongside those suffering severe acute malnutrition are many more whose physical and mental development will be stunted by chronic malnutrition, denying them a productive adulthood. 

If the Afghan government and international community commit to long-term, rights-based sustainable development then hunger for Afghan children may be ended.  If quick result 3 year funding cycles continue to dominate, it won’t.