Recession worsens Kenyan famine

NAIROBI, Kenya — El Wak in northeastern Kenya is more than 7,000 miles from Wall Street, and some 4,000 miles from world leaders meeting today at the G20 summit in London.

But the children there are already feeling the pinch from the global economic meltdown. 

The global recession, the worst in decades, is taking its toll in the arid land where people traditionally live on the cattle they herd.

The cost is not felt in fewer restaurant meals, missed bonuses or defaulted mortgage payments. It is in the empty bellies, wasted muscles and stunted growth of the more than 100,000 Kenyan children at greater risk of malnutrition as a result of increased world food prices, now compounded by the global economic collapse.

An estimated 400,000 children worldwide might die of starvation due to the financial crisis, according to the international charity Save the Children. Across Africa 2.6 million children are at risk of malnutrition; that figure reaches 10.4 million for all developing countries.

"The failures in the banking system have been exported across the world, but the biggest impact is on children in the poorest countries,” says Adrian Lovett, Save the Children’s director of campaigns. 

Twelve-year-old Aftin Abdenur is one such child. Wrapped in a bright printed cloth that hangs from his skinny body, his pale eyes indicate anemia. “In the morning before school, I have a cup of black tea. At noon, I have black tea, and at dinner we eat boiled corn meal,” Aftin explains.

Aftin has seven brothers and sisters. Sometimes his younger sisters are so hungry they cry, so Aftin shares his meager dinner with them.

The impact is on both his health and his future. “When I’m at school, I feel tired and weak with hunger,” he continues. “Sometimes my vision gets fuzzy, and I can’t see the black board clearly.”

Aftin’s family used to be semi-nomadic and largely self-sufficient herding cattle and moving between watering holes and pastures. But, like many former pastoralists, modernity and persistent drought have conspired to end that way of life.

Now Aftin’s father loads trucks in El Wak and relies on an erratic wage to buy food from the market. Prices have risen and he no longer earns enough to feed the family.

“Before, the money my father earned was enough to buy us meals for the day,” recalls Aftin. “We used to be able to afford more food. We ate three meals a day: tea and flatbread for breakfast, some rice for lunch, and meat for supper.”

Fatuma Muhammad Ker, a mother of four, tells the same story. “Last year, I could feed my family on 200 Kenyan shillings [$2.50] a day. Now, even KSh500 [$6.20] is not enough.” Her children no longer have lunch.

 The World Bank estimates that the combination of the food, fuel and financial crises in the last year has pushed another 100 million people into poverty worldwide.

In Africa, far from the fulcrum of the financial crisis, economies are shrinking, meaning less work for people such as Aftin’s father just as the cost of food spirals out of reach.

Remittances sent from relatives abroad, or working in the continent’s mushrooming cities, have reduced dramatically as jobs have been cut. In Kenya the value of remittances has nearly halved meaning rural families have less cash for food, medicine or school fees.

In Kenya tourism has also collapsed leaving workers unemployed and the economy reeling. The terrible violence that followed elections in 2007 put off foreign visitors and then the credit crunch made expensive long-haul holidays beyond the reach of most. The wildlife, beaches and stunning landscape that used to attract over one million visitors each year are still there, but the tourists are not.

The International Monetary Fund expects economic growth in sub-Saharan African countries to fall by at least 2 percent this year as commodity prices plummet and foreign direct investment dries up.

Donor support and aid money is also reducing. Rich donor countries — such as those meeting at this week’s G20 summit in London — are cutting back on their aid to developing nations as they focus on the crisis at home.

The world’s richest countries, represented by the smaller G8 grouping, were already failing to live up to their 2005 pledge to increase development aid by $50 billion a year before the credit crunch struck. There is little chance of them living up to those promises now and the  much-touted Millennium Development Goals to improve lives by 2015 seem further from reach than ever.

Those suffering the most from the global recession are the poor in Africa and other developing countries, says Adrian Lovett, of Save the Children. “Leaders of the richest countries must look beyond their own backyard and understand that the crisis that they have helped create will not only damage livelihoods at home, it will destroy lives in the rest of the world,” says Lovett.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Africa:

Kenya banks on farmers

Muddy ponds may be future for Africa's fishermen 

For more on the global economic crisis:Click here for the full report