Dima is the sole provider for her eight children, and her livelihood, like that of her community near Yabello, Ethiopia, depends on cattle. Dima has learned to run a successful small business buying and selling milk. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Hunger: It’s not a new problem for many countries in Africa.
While food is a basic necessity for human life, the reasons why millions of people go hungry are complex.
Crops are failing in Ethiopia due to dry weather conditions caused by El Nino, leading to the worst drought in a decade and triggering a hunger crisis that is affecting 10 million people.
In South Sudan, political instability and widespread displacement due to violent extremism have combined to create a double threat to food security.
And in Niger, widespread gender inequality keeps good nutritional information and regular meals out of reach, especially for women and girls.
These are just a few examples of why solving hunger takes more than just food. Better farming practices, safer communities and empowered women—these are some of the key ways we work within communities to tackle food insecurity at its source and come up with solutions that ensure families have enough to eat today, and tomorrow.
In Ethiopia: Better business can create more food
We define food security as a milestone achieved when all people at all times eat sufficient, safe, and nutritious food and practice behaviors that promote both their economic stability and well-being.
In a country like Ethiopia, where 80 percent of the population relies on rain-fed agriculture for the food and income they need to survive, this means building resilience against El Nino, climate change and other unpredictable weather patterns.
We’ve been on the ground in Ethiopia since 2004, working with local farmers and families to help them access more food and earn steady incomes. And we are continuing to work within communities to strengthen their economies and communities, so they can overcome the 2016 drought and hunger crisis.
By supplying herders with animal feed, scaling up training and supplies for veterinarians, and connecting herders in hard-hit areas who need to sell animals with commercial livestock traders we are supporting livelihoods.
And to help the Ethiopian government overcome these cycles of crisis for the long term, we’ve partnered with them to manage their early warning systems network, which monitors things like rainfall and market information to predict food shortages before they happen.
In the agriculture sector, only crops that can weather climate change and drought will support food security in the long term.
In South Sudan: Conflict and hunger create vicious cycle
Food security and conflict are deeply connected.
Take South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011. While South Sudan has agricultural potential, civil war since 2013 has stunted its development as a nation. More than 2.4 million people — nearly 1 in 5—are displaced due to violence.
Violence interferes with spring planting and then often closes markets due to safety concerns. What little food is available soars in price, and most displaced families have no money to buy any goods. These food shortages are the most dire in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states.
Since the conflict began, our team has been providing urgent food, water and sanitation assistance. We identify vulnerable families in otherwise inaccessible areas, ensuring critical assistance — vegetable seeds, fishing tools, water purification tablets, nutritional biscuits and other supplies — reaches the people who need it most.
And in more accessible places, we distribute cash so people can get the food and provisions they urgently need to provide safe, healthy lives for their families.
Local traders receive funds to resupply their market stalls specifically with the necessities that are most in-demand, including foods like sugar, flour, rice, beans and salt.
Having access to clean water is key to sanitation and food safety in places like South Sudan and Somalia, where violent extremism and political instability has displaced 1.1 million people.
Food shortages can also cause political instability. In 2007-08, rapid increases in food prices triggered unrest in 43 countries, including a government overthrow in Haiti, as populations reacted to rapidly rising costs for critical food staples.
In Niger: Empowering women empowers communities
Research shows that when men and women both have access to information, education and financial resources, everybody wins. Over the past few years, women's role in food security has come into sharp focus.
Women farmers produce 60–80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production.
In the home, women—especially those in rural areas—are primarily responsible for selecting food and preparing meals, playing a decisive role in their families’ dietary diversity and health.
Tell Congress: Improve the health of women and girls with Food for Peace
In Niger, 10 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition and 44 percent are chronically malnourished, according to the World Food Programme. Because women do most of the farming and feeding in Niger, we know that empowering them with information and resources is key to fighting hunger here.
Our work throughout Niger helps mothers learn about proper nutrition. We train village leaders who in turn train the village’s mothers about the importance of good food and fruits and vegetables to ensure the health of their children.
We also are teaching women new ways to keep animals healthy, manage new wells and use new farming techniques that make the most of limited resources and are more resilient to climate change.
How you can help
Captions: (corresponding to photos below)
(top photo) A group participates in a coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. We've been working with local farmers and families in Ethiopia since 2004 to help them earn steady incomes and become more resilient to the impact of unpredictable weather patterns. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
(middle photo) Civil war has displaced more than 2.4 million people in South Sudan and left nearly 3 million at risk for starvation as violence shuts down markets and interferes with planting. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
(bottom photo) Fati, mother of 5, was selected by the community to receive health care and nutrition training from Mercy Corps to pass on to fellow mothers in her village in Niger. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
Despite many challenges, the people of Nepal are moving forward after last year's devastating earthquakes. Our team on the ground is there to help them rebuild. All photos: Tom Van Cakenberghe
Last year, a powerful earthquake in Nepal devastated the country. As we look back, one year later, the numbers tell a story about the disaster itself, recovery efforts, and your impact.
135,000 — The number of people we reached with emergency supplies immediately after the disaster, thanks to the compassion of people like you.
7.8 — The magnitude of the initial earthquake, strong enough to shake historical sites to the ground, break roads apart and send homes sliding down Nepal’s beautiful green hillsides.
8 million — The number of people, about 40 percent of Nepal, who were affected by the earthquake and its powerful aftershocks.
Because of you, our team has been able to stand with Nepalis during this difficult time — and help them get the tools and information they need to build back stronger than before. But the road to recovery has been filled with challenges.
Monsoon season threatens recovery
After the deadly earthquakes in April and May, the monsoon season — normally from June through September — came early. Torrential rains pounded Nepal, soaking families who only had thin tarps or makeshift tents for shelter.
“The earthquake was the big event, but we still have aftershocks. The earthquake hit, and then the monsoon season came early — so just as people were forced out of their houses, the rains came pouring down,” said Jeff Shannon, director of programs in Nepal.
Rebuilding during the monsoon season was difficult. For people who could afford it, often the best they could do was purchase tin sheeting to create temporary shelters or repair areas of their damaged homes.
We offered unconditional cash to 23,000 people so they could purchase emergency supplies or buy the items needed to repair their homes or create better shelters for their families. By working with local shops, the cash transfers infused $1.7 million into the economy.
Fuel crisis slows relief efforts
Just as the monsoon season was coming to an end — offering an opportunity for the people of Nepal, and organizations like Mercy Corps, to ramp up recovery efforts — a widespread fuel crisis crippled the economy even further.
From September of last year through February, there was almost no fuel available. People were trapped, hospitals began to shut down, and medicine ran out. “Things just stopped moving around the country,” Shannon said. “Prices for everything doubled, and quadrupled. At just the moment when you wanted to rebuild and get investment going, everything came to a dead stop.”
For families who had already lost almost everything when the earthquake hit, the effects of the fuel crisis were another tough blow. Most people were already vulnerable, with little or no savings, so whatever they did have was spent quickly on food and emergency supplies.
“People had already lost their houses, their seeds, and their livestock. They couldn’t buy more of anything, because of the prices,” Shannon said. “Farmers couldn’t sell their crops because there were no trucks. So they started eating seed stock — but then you have nothing to plant. You have no money and no seeds. As a farmer, what do you do?”
Tell Congress to support smart recovery efforts for Nepal
The prolonged fuel crisis made Mercy Corps’ work extremely difficult. Many of the earthquake’s hardest-hit areas are rural and isolated. With no fuel, it was impossible to reach them for much of that time period. The team did meet with local communities as they were able to understand their needs and lay the groundwork for a more robust, long-term response.
As the winter temperatures dropped, the needs of recovering Nepalis became even more apparent. “It was morally devastating to see that people were sleeping under tin sheets in snow, ice and freezing winter,” Shannon said. Some even went back into their crumbling houses just to escape the elements.
Despite the tremendous challenges brought on by the fuel crisis, Shannon and his team were able to distribute extra winter supplies to more than 36,000 people in need. “We were able to go out and help the really vulnerable with extra blankets.”
Fuel crisis ends, optimism begins
The fuel crisis eventually ended, and things are slowly returning to the way they were last summer. “There is a cautious sigh of relief,” Shannon said . “Prices for staples have slowly decreased — they are almost back to normal levels. Fuel supplies are much improved, but still in somewhat short supply, while cooking and heating gas is still often difficult to get.”
When fuel became available after so many months, the team in Nepal couldn’t wait to get to work helping people get back on their feet. The team shifted from only being able to work sporadically to working in the field every day since the fuel crisis ended. “Everyone’s racing just as fast as they can go,” Shannon said.
Now, our biggest goals are helping Nepalis rebuild their homes, access financial services like banking, and physically strengthen their communities against landslides, flooding and future disasters.
Nepal’s lush green hillsides are particularly vulnerable to landslides during disasters — which makes evacuating, or delivering aid, extremely difficult. “We saw more landslides in the two weeks after the earthquake than in the last five years,” Shannon said.
To strengthen those fragile areas and help Nepalis earn more income, we’re hiring locals to build infrastructure that will make the hillsides safer. Efforts like this are bringing communities together. “As an individual, I can’t make that hillside safer, but as a community we can do that — and Mercy Corps can help,” Shannon said.
We’re also working with our partners, like Build Change, again to help earthquake survivors rebuild their homes with affordable and accessible materials.
Most people in the rural, hardest-hit areas don’t have access to any financial services, so we are working with local banks to provide financial literacy training and extend their services into these areas to help Nepalis save, and invest in their homes and businesses.
Nepalis show resilience in the face of disaster
Despite the many challenges they’ve faced in the last year alone, Jeff Shannon is confident in the resilience of the people of Nepal.
“These are some of the most amazing, kind, generous and welcoming people I’ve ever met. In the midst of devastation, you saw people who were happy that they survived, happy their neighbors were there, and they were celebrating the fact that they were alive,” Shannon said.
“You go to communities where nothing is left standing, and people are putting flowers around your neck and offering you tea. The unbreakable spirit of Nepalis will see them through this. It’s awe-inspiring. They’re quite sure they’re going to get through it — and we want to be there to help them do that.”
As the people of Nepal continue their recovery, the team is working hard to help in whatever way they can. Now that the fuel crisis is over, the monsoon season is on its way — it’s a race against the clock to get as much done as possible before the rains set in.
Recovery is possible because of you
When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal last year, 50,000 people like you stepped up to donate to our emergency relief efforts. One year later, Jeff Shannon, his team, and the people of Nepal remain grateful for your compassion.
“It’s only because of the people who gave $5 that we are able to help. Because people gave, we’ve been able to build up a response that is really focused on the people in those villages who offered us cups of tea when they had no house around them,” Shannon said.
“We would never be able to do what we’re doing now if it weren’t for the people who gave at that time. All the little donations have enabled us to respond, and a year on, we’re still doing it. Thank you.
Photo captions - (captions correspond to photos in order of sequence from top to bottom, below):
Rom Prasad is a local leader who is helping his community remove landslide debris from the earthquake and prepare the area for future disasters. "I join this work to save our village from the danger that this landslide can pose," he said.
Adi Maya lost her home in last year's earthquake. Only the ground floor now remains, and she and her husband live in this temporary shelter. She's joined the local Mercy Corps financial literacy training to learn how she can get a small loan to rebuild.
Students in Mercy Corps' financial literacy training learn the basics about saving and investing in their homes and futures. Through the course, they also learn how they can get small loans at low interest from a local cooperative group.
Chameli is one of 12 trainers for the financial literacy courses, which are currently taking place in six different villages. She teaches students two hours a day for several weeks.
We've hired local people to help rebuild Nepal's crumbling hillsides. They earn income to support their own recovery and also help prepare their community for future disasters.
Approximately 1 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, many with just the things they could carry. Our team worked day and night to help them through their journeys. All photos: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps
Right now, close to 12,000 refugees are crowded at Greece’s border with Macedonia, waiting and hoping to be allowed safe passage as they flee towards the safety and promise of northern Europe.
Recently, the route north through the Balkans was officially closed — and now, refugees who flee across the sea risk being sent back as soon as they arrive. And so families already trapped in Greece wait, with children strapped to their backs and carrying few belongings, for a second chance at a more peaceful future.
Our team worked tirelessly all winter in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia to help refugee families keep moving forward — offering food, temporary shelter, winter supplies and critical information.
But now, the excitement and relief refugees felt in the fall has been replaced with uncertainty.
Refugee arrivals on the shores of Greece peaked last summer, when approximately 10,000 refugees — from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and as far as Eritrea — were making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe every day.
More than 1 million refugees arrived to Europe by sea in 2015. Another 144,000 have already arrived in 2016.
Facing uncertainty and a journey through cold and potentially snowy conditions, fewer refugees are making the trip — but they are still coming — with some 2,500 arriving on Greece’s islands, exhausted and weary, every day.
Many refugees feel that they have no choice. After five years of war in Syria, and pockets of conflict and violence in nearby Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little hope for a family trying to survive or a mother caring for her young children.
So each day, families board tiny rubber boats, crowded with dozens of other refugees — most wearing counterfeit lifejackets — and hope that they make it across alive.
The refugee route: A grueling journey
While the trip across the sea is daunting and dangerous, it was just the beginning for refugees who were trying to make it all the way to Germany or Scandinavia. After taking a ferry to Greece’s mainland, refugees had to pass through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia or Hungary, and Austria before they reach Germany, where many refugees hope to stay and build a new life.
Most of this grueling journey was spent on the move — boarding trains in the middle of the night, crowding onto buses, and walking across rough terrain just to get to the next stop. There’s little time for rest. Refugee families only spent a matter of hours, or a day or two at most, passing through countries like Macedonia and Serbia. And the conditions were often treacherous.
At the border between Macedonia and Serbia, refugees had to walk approximately one and a half miles across a barren field, carrying whatever they brought with them. Because it’s a border crossing, organizations like Mercy Corps were only allowed to help people on either side. Refugees had to make the walk in between by themselves.
Late last year, the field was pounded by heavy rains, and the path turned to knee-deep mud. Come January, the mud froze and was covered by a layer of snow. The winter weather here takes no mercy on those passing through.
Mercy Corps has been working along the refugee route from Greece to Croatia since last fall, helping people continue forward on their journey as safely as possible. In Macedonia and Serbia, it was a skeleton team. Once only three dedicated staff, the team grew to a small but mighty group of seven.
Near the border, on either side, staff offered information, translation services, and assistance with transportation, particularly for the disabled or elderly. Signage in the area is sparse, and not often translated into Arabic or other languages. Family members were sometimes separated, and our team worked to reunite them as quickly as possible.
To help stave off exhaustion and the brutal winter temperatures, we also ran temporary shelters that offered heaters and safe spaces for families to rest before they continued on towards northern Europe.
“There is no life in Iraq and Syria …”
The trip was difficult enough for most, but it seemed impossible at times for pregnant women with small children, the elderly and people with disabilities.
Khalid, 55, is originally from Baghdad and needs a wheelchair to get around. When the war in Iraq erupted years ago, he and his family fled to Syria. But the violence in Syria was too much to bear, so Khalid and his son became refugees for a second time as they escaped Syria to make the journey towards Europe.
“We left Syria because of the war. There is no life in Iraq and Syria so we have to go somewhere else,” said Khalid.
He was supposed to receive assistance so that his whole family could leave Syria, but the help never came.
Without enough money to bring his wife, Khalid and his son began the long trip, hoping that she’ll be able to join them eventually. “We hope one day we will send money to her in Syria to bring her to Germany,” he said.
When Khalid and his son arrived by train to Tabanovce, Macedonia, they took some time to warm up and rest in a Mercy Corps shelter before our team helped transport them by van to the Serbian border. It was a difficult trip for Khalid, but it’s the best choice he feels he can make for his family.
“The road to here was honestly a difficult part. The path to here was tiring. Very tiring,” said Khalid. “It’s hard traveling in a wheelchair because roads aren’t made to accommodate a wheelchair — they’re all rock or dirt. The road kept shaking under my chair, it was harder to be in the chair than to walk.”
But Khalid perseveres — he knows that if they can make it to Germany, his son, who also has a disability, will have hope for a better life and a stronger future.
“My son needs a major surgery. He was born with a defect. He can’t see with his right eye, and can’t breathe on the right side,” said Khalid. “We’re hoping he can have this surgery in Germany. There aren’t any doctors who can help in Syria.”
A small, but mighty team helps refugees
Our staff members in Macedonia and Serbia worked day and night all winter to help refugees like Khalid continue forward. One of those dedicated team members is Kusang Tamang, who left his position in Nepal for a few months to join the effort in the Balkans.
In an emergency situation like the refugee crisis, things can get hectic. “When I first came here I was doing everything, and we didn’t have shifts,” Tamang said. “I would be working in the morning and at night. It could be on the Macedonian side or on the Serbian side of the border.”
Refugee trains arrived at all hours of the day, and through the night, so the team had to create shifts to make sure that they could help at any time. The normal shift was from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., when the team determined there was the most need for assistance.
“But if there is a need, a lot of people coming through, we will work until 3:30 a.m.,” said Tamang. “There was one time when one of our officers worked until 5:30 in the morning.”
The team had one van on the Macedonian side of the border, and two on the Serbian side. They looked out for the most vulnerable individuals and offered help with transportation to the refugee processing centers, or to a temporary shelter for rest. “With one van the average is about 80 people that we transport in one shift,” Tamang said.
Helping refugees like Khalid gave Tamang and the other team members a sense of purpose. They know how important it is to offer kindness and hope during such a difficult process. “The work is very rewarding,” Tamang said. “It feels good at the end of the shift to know that you actually helped people, and to see that you are making a difference.”
“What stands out to me is the people saying thank you. Because they have been abused, they have been harassed on their way here, and then when someone helps them, they really appreciate that.”
Best solution: Solve the refugee crisis
Since September, our work along the refugee route in Greece, Macedonia and Serbia has reached approximately 80,000 people.
When refugees arrived in Greece this winter, our team there offered food, shelter, information, winter supplies and cash assistance to help them continue their journey. As they moved through the Balkans, Mercy Corps staff helped provide transportation, translation, information, shelter and more winter supplies if refugees needed them.
As refugees pushed on past the Balkans and to more hopeful futures in northern Europe, one thing became clear— despite incredible challenges, refugees will keep coming until the fighting stops.
“The best solution would be to resolve the conflict. I know — it’s easy to say, hard to do,” said Mercy Corps team member Kamil Qandil.
“Humanitarian assistance is needed, but it’s not a solution. We can try to provide dignity and respect and support people, but the solution should be political. We can carry on with humanitarian assistance for as long as it is needed, but it does not resolve the source of the conflict.”