This post was written by Shawn Baker, HKI’s vice president and regional director for Africa.
Arriving in the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, it is hard to imagine the gravity of the food and nutrition crisis hitting the Horn of Africa region. Nairobi is a bustling commercial hub for all of East Africa and seems far removed from the horrific images from Somalia and other affected countries. But reading the newspapers and working with partners such as the Kenyan Ministry of Health, UNICEF, World Food Program and Save the Children – you are quickly caught up in the urgency of the response. Nairobi is home to many of the agencies responding to the crisis in Kenya, and most organizations that are working in Somalia also base their operations here.
The saddest aspect of the current crisis may be that it had been predicted; earlier action could have prevented the levels of tragedy we are seeing now. For example, quoting from a February 23, 2011 bulletin from the USAID-funded FEWSNet “Poor performance of March-May rainfall would result in further deterioration in food security. Large-scale emergency assistance to address current food insecurity is needed; contingency planning, given the possibility of a major crisis, should also be implemented.” High background levels of undernutrition and food insecurity combined with two successive years of drought have created a “perfect storm”.
As a technical leader in nutrition, Helen Keller International cannot sit on the sidelines. At the same time we need to carefully consider what our added value is in this crisis. HKI is not a “first responder,” but works through partners to develop and scale up immediate and long-term solutions to undernutrition. For example, our work in community-based management of acute malnutrition has built the capacity of Government health services in the Sahel to integrate treatment of acute malnutrition as part of a package of prevention and treatment. Our small Nairobi-based team (Deputy Regional Director for Eastern, Central and Southern Africa Anu Narayan, and Regional Micronutrient Advisor Jessica Blankenship) have been engaged with regional and Kenyan partners to identify current programming gaps where HKI’s expertise could enhance the response.
Our immediate action includes seconding our West Africa coordinator for community-based management of acute malnutrition, Issakha Diop, to join the UNICEF regional nutrition team to strengthen their response capacity. In Kenya, we will be supporting the World Food Program, the Government of Kenya and their implementing partners to improve the communications about, and quality of, a blanket feeding program in six priority districts that is designed to provide immediate relief to young children and pregnant and lactating mothers.
For the medium term, it is crucial to ensure that the package of high-impact nutrition interventions prioritized by the Kenyan Government (and aligned with global best practices) be scaled up as rapidly as possible to assist in recovering from the current crisis and make families, communities and the health system more resilient to any future shocks. This crisis has put nutrition firmly on the agenda for decision makers – and we cannot let attention fade after the current phase or we will see a repeat of these tragic scenes. For readers interested in supporting HKI’s efforts in Kenya, please click here to make a donation.
Over the coming weeks, Anu, Jessica and Issakha will be reporting on our efforts to support our partners in their remarkable response to this tragic crisis.