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Thursday, August 7, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Severe Acute Malnutrition and a troubling reflection

Ethiopia’s current crisis is a perfect storm of drought, sharply increased market prices for food, and failed crops. Obviously, all of this manifests as a lack of food. But the starkest outcome of all these factors is undoubtedly the child with Severe Acute Malnutrition or SAM.

How is SAM measured? Any child that weighs less than 70% of the median fits into this category. More graphically: a mid-upper-arm circumference of less than 110 millimetres in children between one and five years of age indicates SAM. For comparison’s sake, the inside of a roll of toilet paper measures approximately 145 millimetres.

Reducing a human being to nothing more than an object of pity does not sit well with HOPE people. For this reason, great care is exercised in the way people and communities overseas are depicted in print, picture, and film. We are sharing stories about our partners, not passive vessels of aid. We feel compassion (defined as ‘suffering-with’) for those who are like us, not those for whom we feel no kinship and no recognition. The closer we draw to a person, the more likely we are to see our own reflection.

We don’t want to publicize pictures of people who have become literally less human-looking. But there is a struggle, because we have staff members who are seeing, touching, caring for children who have been robbed of their resemblance to other human beings. If they must see this, why shouldn’t everybody else? Why shouldn’t you?

We are trying to draw people from radically different worlds closer, so that they recognize themselves in one another. When this occurs, compassion takes root. Can you recognize yourself in a child with withered arms, a kwashiorkor stomach, a head made enormous by comparison to her body? It’s difficult. That’s what we ask people to do.

We know that no one in Canada will starve if they give so that children like these will live. Because the idea of starvation is so fantastically remote, we tend to shy away from thinking about the truly hungry.

However, we need people who care to know that our staff are grappling with the severe malnutrition children are experiencing. Whether or not you see a single picture of a single child who is suffering to an unimaginable extent, we know for a fact that they are out there in large numbers. We are caring for them to the best of our ability, but this can only happen if supporters are compassionate and give generously. And the greatest compassion isn’t inspired by pity and fear, but through drawing closer and seeing a clear reflection.

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