Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps exists to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. Mercy Corps helps people survive, recover and become self-sufficient. We partner with the people we serve to help them recover from disasters and conflicts, secure peace, grow more food, improve health, educate and protect children, empower women and start businesses that improve the standard of living for families and communities.
Sep 21, 2012

The Sahel Crisis - Donor Questions Answered

Theirno Diallo answers your Sahel questions
Theirno Diallo answers your Sahel questions

The hunger crisis in the Sahel is not an immediate emergency that gets splashed across the evening news. Instead, the tragic circumstances of drought and failed harvests have been building since the beginning of the year.

A slow build might not get as much media attention, but it is no less critical. This wide-spread disaster has left millions of families without enough to eat — and continues to worsen throughout this dry season.

WATCH VIDEO: Food crisis is just beginning

The causes and the effects of this situation are complex, the issues Mercy Corps teams are addressing no less challenging. And you want to know more.

So we passed along supporters' pressing questions to Mercy Corps’ Country Director, Thierno Diallo, in Niger, a nation at the heart of the crisis. His answers shed light on the important work that your support makes possible


What is the impact of the hunger crisis on children there? What is Mercy Corps doing to help?

The hunger crisis has had a negative affect on children’s well being, specifically on their health and nutrition. For example, over 13% of children in one of our target areas, the Tillabéri region, suffer from malnutrition. Many families are unable to access food and basic needs.

Mercy Corps is supporting thousands of vulnerable families through cash-for-work projects and emergency distributions that put cash in the hands of those that need it most so they can buy food. Mercy Corps has also been working with the National Health Extension to support community health centers that screen children for malnutrition; to provide nutrient-rich therapeutic food; to support mothers and improve health of their infants from birth to 2-years-old; and to host health education campaigns in dozens of villages.

How are you helping communities prepare for the future?

We are working to build the resilience of vulnerable communities by providing short-term jobs and cash during times of need or little work. This will help farmers and pastoralists hold onto their assets during the crisis so they can restart their livelihoods when conditions are better. Meanwhile, the projects people work on result in long-term improvements that rehabilitate the land and increase access to water so future harvests and animal health will improve.

They have learned to dig simple, shallow shapes into the land — banquettes for grazing land, half-moons for crops, and smaller crescents for gardening plots — that keep top soil from washing away and collect runoff water. When it rains here, it rains very hard. Rather than just evaporating away, the pooled water now absorbs more fully into the ground. Grasses that animals eat grow very quickly near the pools, which are also a new water source for the animals. The desert transforms incredibly quickly with just a little water — it's pretty amazing!

These areas are also fertilized to improve the soil, and communities are encouraged to plant trees what will slow erosion over the long-term. Additionally, the trees become a source of wood for fuel and the leaves offer more feed for animals.

We are also working with partners to connect more communities with the government's early warning system. Collecting and monitoring more data from throughout the country will ensure future droughts do not go unnoticed before it’s too late.

What has been most surprising about the situation on the ground?

During past crises, men and young people would temporarily leave villages to find work or food in the cities. But the situation is so bad this time that they are no longer leaving women and children behind to maintain their homes; entire families are abandoning their farms for good and uprooting their whole lives to try to survive. The sense is that the situation has become hopeless and people do not see a way of making it work in either the short- or long-term.

How is Mercy Corps introducing sustainable farming/agriculture practices to help people through this drought, and droughts to come?

Mercy Corps is helping people get access to improved seeds that can better withstand dry conditions and more effective fertilization to improve the soil. We're teaching the land rehabilitation techniques outlined above, which can be integrated into agricultural practices for generations to come.

To increase the market value of harvests, our teams are also working with farmers — especially women — on improved storage techniques. Traditionally, small and disadvantaged producers sell crops immediately after harvest. The surplus in the market at harvest time causes prices to drop, and the most vulnerable farmers are forced to sell their produce at unfavorable prices. Our programs teach simple preservation and storage strategies, like completely drying beans and peanuts before storing (if stored while still wet or damp the produce will just rot). This knowledge provides farmers with the skills to preserve a high quality product and allows them to sell their produce when the market has more favorable conditions.

Why did you choose to work for Mercy Corps?

Broadly, Mercy Corps strives to find solutions to complex global crises by thinking differently about the process, using local partnerships and focusing on long-term sustainability. I was drawn to Mercy Corps by the challenging geography in which they operate and the unique development models they employ to create lasting change in these transitional environments.

Why is it so difficult to grow produce in the region?

Niger is in the Sahel, the southern part of the Sahara desert. The region is affected by climate change, which has led to increasingly chronic and recurring droughts every three or four years. In addition to low amounts of rainfall and groundwater, the soil is very poor and generally infertile. Most farmers use traditional production methods, but the improved technology and modern techniques discussed above will help them adapt to these new environmental conditions.

People in crisis respond with courage. What stories of courage do you keep close to your heart?

On a recent field visit we talked to many people benefitting from our projects. They said that when the family eats, they first serve the children, then the men, and finally they serve the women. When food is plentiful, the whole family eats well. However, now that food is scarce, women continue to serve their children and husbands first. Their self-sacrifice is courageous, but heartbreaking.

During our visit, women told us that they prefer the cash-for-work activities. When they work and earn money, they are able to buy enough food for their entire family. They also work to rehabilitate land that was not previously being utilized. In addition to supporting their families, their efforts help the community produce more food and help to increase the water and feed available for livestock, which increases future earnings.

 

Thank you for your donation. It helps Thierno and the Mercy Corps team continue this important work. Your donation saved lives.

Mothers wait to get help for malnourished children
Mothers wait to get help for malnourished children
Half-moon shapes: land will retain more rainwater
Half-moon shapes: land will retain more rainwater
Land is dry and cracked, causing harvests to fail
Land is dry and cracked, causing harvests to fail

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Sep 20, 2012

One Year Later: Helping Children Survive in the Horn of Africa

Malnourished children receive therapeutic food
Malnourished children receive therapeutic food

You might hear it called a “slow onset” emergency because, unlike the sudden strike of an earthquake, drought builds gradually. But don’t bother telling that to the mothers whose children are hanging on by a thread; slow isn’t the word they would choose. Grueling, they might say. Nerve-wracking. Painful.

The first warnings came from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in November 2010, after autumn rains failed to arrive. Red-soil grasslands baked as hard as concrete. The region hadn’t been this dry in 60 years. By early 2011, 6.3 million people needed emergency help. But it wasn’t until the summer, when the number of people in crisis doubled to 12.3 million, that the general public finally began to pay attention.

By that time Mercy Corps had already launched an emergency response in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, bringing water, food and medical care to those who are most vulnerable: babies, children, orphans, widows, elders.

Now, one year later, we’re still helping the people of the Horn recover. In remote rural Ethiopia, where most people are herders, we’re focusing our efforts on malnourished children and their moms.

Milk from the sky?

Why is malnutrition such a scourge among these families? They depend on their sheep, goats, camels and cattle for everything: milk and meat, labor, income. When the rains don't come, pastures dry up. Animals have nothing to eat. They lose weight, become malnourished, stop having babies, can’t produce milk. Many die. The consequences to humans — especially children, for whom milk is the main protein source — are profound. So even though milk doesn’t really fall from the sky, the link between rainfall and malnutrition is direct and unmistakable.

It takes time for the land to heal from a long, severe drought. It takes time for animals to recover and become fertile again. A drought like the one in the Horn is not only slow to arrive, but slow to depart.

“Even assuming normal rains this season and for the next three rainy seasons,” says Nathan Oetting, director of integrated humanitarian response for Mercy Corps Ethiopia, “it will be the middle of 2013 — at the earliest — before the region produces enough milk for children’s needs.” That means malnourished people will need care for some time.

Mobile clinics bring lifesaving care where the need is greatest

Mercy Corps is currently running eight mobile health clinics that provide exams, triage, food, medicine, vaccines and treatment to babies, children and adults. Each mobile unit is staffed by two or three nurses and two or three health workers; to make sure people continue to get the lifesaving help they need, we’re training local people to take over the program. Our clinics travel to communities where the need is greatest and other care is not available.

They arrive in a jeep stocked with lifesaving supplies: antibiotics, analgesics, cough syrup, deworming medicine, vitamin A (a common deficiency), Plumpy’nut high-protein therapeutic food for infants, fortified corn-soy cereal and cooking oil, as well as soap and mosquito nets.

Since last summer, our mobile health teams in Ethiopia have cared for 37,871 children, distributed food to 63,763 malnourished people and provided immunizations and information to help thousands more survive the drought — and stay healthier beyond that.

Nursing malnourished children back to health

When mothers like Hali, Mona and Zainab show up seeking care for their children, many are deeply worried. Their babies are listless. Their toddlers weigh less than an infant should. Their little ones are frail, sick or both. Our health workers check their condition. All too often, we discover the telltale signs of malnutrition: edema, dry reddish hair like Abdirizaq’s, below-normal upper arm measurements.

A child diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition is given the fortified peanut mixture called Plumpy’nut, which contains essential nutrients and calories in a toothpaste-like squeeze packet that requires no cooking. “It’s sweet,” explains Nate, “so the kids eat it right away.” After their condition improves to moderate acute malnutrition, parents receive vitamin fortified cooking oil and corn-soy cereal to help their kids continue to gain weight and become stronger and healthier.

Quick triage gets the sickest babies to inpatient care center

Our teams triage the most seriously ill little ones, who have other complications like pneumonia or malaria. “Their lives are in danger,” Nate explains, “so they’re immediately referred to one of our emergency stabilization centers.”

Mercy Corps Ethiopia currently runs six such centers — three in Shinile Zone, two in Degehabur Zone and one in Afder Zone, all located in the hard-hit Somali Region of eastern Ethiopia. In these centers the sickest babies are treated as inpatients, with their mothers or fathers close by, until they are strong enough to continue treatment as outpatients.

“They need special care before they can even digest Plumpy’nut,” says Nate. “Our goal is to stabilize them in a few days.” We are training staff and gradually transferring the operation of these centers to local governments, so they can continue to be a lifesaving resource.

A little learning yields a lot of health

Our health teams also teach parents what they can do to keep their children healthier, including exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months. “Many village women don’t know what a huge boost that is for the baby,” says Nate. “We see moms feeding their infants sugar water and tea or, on the other end of the spectrum, adult foods the infant can’t digest. We tell the moms when they eat nutritious foods, the baby gets the benefit in their breast milk.” A mother whose new habits make her baby stronger becomes a powerful example for other moms.

We also teach parents about hygiene, sanitation and the use of mosquito nets to help families avoid common diseases like malaria and bacteria that cause diarrhea.

Rain is good…right?

A sudden downpour on drought-baked land is greeted with joy and relief. But it’s not an instant fix. And rain after a long drought causes new problems: floods and erosion, washed-out roads, waterborne disease.

In Ethiopia, rainwater is collected in birkeds, open ponds that by nature aren’t germ-free. “It’s the storage system they use,” says Nate, “but unfortunately it’s not hygienic. During a drought, animals wander into the empty reservoir and leave feces behind.” Then, after rain, there’s a spike in diarrhea cases, so we shift our focus to treating the illnesses people get from drinking unclean water. “Waterborne sicknesses are especially hard on kids,” Nate adds. “It’s as dangerous as not having enough water.”

Todays’ forecast: not enough rain – and still not enough food

According to USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET), spring rains have been disappointing in many areas of the Horn of Africa. Reservoirs remain empty and wells are drying up. Harvests are poor; farmers whose crops depend on irrigation can’t plant due to high fuel and seed prices. Pastures aren’t regrowing. Herders are traveling long distances to find water for their animals. And inflation is pushing up the price of staples like rice and wheat. Emergency levels of food insecurity are expected to persist at least through September. The crisis that generated so much attention a year ago has not gone away.

The most at-risk families are skipping meals, eating smaller and less nutritious meals and borrowing money (at high interest rates) to buy food. In some areas, hungry kids are dropping out of school. Their mothers and fathers are foraging for wild plants to put something, anything in their bellies.

But they’re not facing this crisis alone. “Mercy Corps has been providing health and nutrition support to communities in the Somali Region of Ethiopia since 2008,” said Nate. “No matter how long it takes, we are committed to supporting the full recovery of families hit hard by drought and food shortages. And we will remain their committed partner as they rebuild their lives and livelihoods.“

Thank you for your support. Know that you saved lives.

Mothers bring children to mobile health clinics
Mothers bring children to mobile health clinics
Mercy Corps bringing lifesaving food and supplies
Mercy Corps bringing lifesaving food and supplies
Abdirizaq is so malnourished his hair lost color
Abdirizaq is so malnourished his hair lost color

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Aug 7, 2012

Support Mercy Corps: Vote Now for Our Inspiring Photos!

From Poverty, to Goats, to Profits
From Poverty, to Goats, to Profits

We want to thank you again for supporting our efforts in Haiti, and would like to take this opportunity to share with you what else Mercy Corps is doing on GlobalGiving...

We submitted three breathtaking photos from the field to GlobalGiving's annual photo contest, and two were chosen as finalists! Help us win $1,000 for our work simply by casting your vote by August 15th!

Just by clicking a button, you can help make a difference in the lives of others. It’s incredible how an action so small can have such a big impact.

Voting is easy - vote once for both of these inspiring photos by entering your email address. Then, check your inbox for the confirmation email from GlobalGiving. Only upon confirmation will your vote be counted.

The photo with the most votes by noon EDT on August 15th wins, so vote now!

Don’t forget to share that you’ve voted to help Mercy Corps on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Help us spread the word! 

Without people like you we would not have these heartwarming stories to share. Thank you so much for your continued support. 

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The photo above shows Santou Hamidou rejoicing in Niger. She received two goats from Mercy Corps in December 2011, and now she can breed them. She’s been feeding her family with milk from the goats, and by selling the kids, she can buy more food for her six children. The hunger crisis across the region is worsening, but she has the means to lead her family through this hardship. Santou’s smile makes it clear: a little help can go a long way. 

Vote for the photo of Santou Hamidou with her new goat!

Afghanistan is one of the world's toughest places to be a woman. Conflict and cultural repression have denied them education, careers, safety and equal rights. But Mercy Corps’ INVEST vocational training center in the Helmand province has enrolled more than 900 women who are learning English, computers, sewing, embroidery and calligraphy. The photo below shows one of these resilient women. 

Vote for the photo of the woman with the sewing machine! 

"Education Against All Odds"
"Education Against All Odds"

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