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Today is the last day to make donations to Canadian charities responding to the “Sahel crisis” and have your donation matched by the Government of Canada.

The food crisis in Sahel is of great interest to me. Many of my dearest friends live in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. I lived there along with my husband and young children from 1989 to 1998. In 1991, my first-born child was buried in the dry, stony soil of rural Niger. I worked as a physician in Niger with a faith-based non-governmental organization and then later with Médecins Sans Frontières in 2005 during an earlier food crisis. I have witnessed the impact of chronic food insecurity. I have been there when toddlers their last breath, when they have lost the battle for life in circumstances of severe malnutrition. That painful moment was best described by Dr. James Maskalyk in his book, “Six Months in Sudan” when he asks:

“have you ever heard an infant’s heart stop? don’t you think it is like the silence must be after a train wreck, deep in the forest? like all this activity, and then this final vacuum in place of all the sound?”

Reducing the number of children in the world who die before the age of five should be a top priority for all nations. Canada must certainly respond to a food crisis that contributes so dramatically to childhood mortality. I do not consider myself to be an expert in international development but I think I have some credentials to evaluate the best approach to address the acute-on-chronic crisis in the region in which “1 million children under the age of five are at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition.” Underneath the current phase of the “Sahel Crisis” there are very complex layers of social, political and environmental reasons why children are severely malnourished and hundreds of thousands die prematurely.

Therefore I noted with interest that Canada’s new federal Minister of International Cooperation spoke last week in parliament. Julian Fantino said:

“Mr. Speaker, World Vision is using lunch bags to encourage Canadians to donate their lunch money to the crisis in the Sahel. With Canada’s support, 10 million people have received food assistance and 250,000 children have been treated for acute malnutrition.

“On August 7, our government launched the Sahel crisis matching fund and invested $10 million immediately to help those in need. Until September 30 we will match every dollar contributed to a registered Canadian charity responding to this crisis.”

Mr. Fantino was describing the process in which “For every eligible dollar donated by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities, Canada will set aside one dollar for the Sahel Crisis Matching Fund.”

I am delighted that these important issues are being considered in the House of Commons. Yet the announcement made me pause to think about how Canadian international development funds are being allocated.  I found myself somewhat unsettled about Mr. Fantino’s announcement. In terms of the concept of matching donations of individual Canadians, I can see some benefits. Hopefully it inspires Canadians to make donations during a period when they might not otherwise do so. It is also a fairly democratic initiative in that this pot of federal money then ends up being allocated according to the priorities and projects that Canadian citizens select.

So why was I unsettled by this declaration? I felt that the announcement may have oversimplified the situation in the Sahel – as if simply food and emergency healthcare would solve this extremely complex crisis. Canada’s role should be much larger than food aid. I would have liked to hear the announcement explicitly state that Canada’s international mandate involves addressing the root causes of a food crisis like this one. Tackling the problem of acute and chronic food shortages means tackling education, infrastructure, trade, climate change and much more.

Ten million dollars is only a small part of the overall Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) budget. But it’s not an insignificant amount. I want to see federal development dollars going to the smartest investments. I want to know that those who lead CIDA have been particularly thoughtful about how Canada can have an impact on massive global problems such as hunger and poverty. It is widely known that there have been large cutbacks to the CIDA budget. I believe we should be contributing more, not less, to international development needs. But we need to be exceedingly smart about how we do it.

There was an excellent column by Doug Saunders just yesterday that described how “the poor ain’t what they used to be”. Have a look at the column and make special note of the comments from Andy Sumner who describes the need to fundamentally re-think the international approach to poverty (and I would add hunger). This is just one example of how the development needs of the world have changed. Canada needs a superbly wise, creative and courageous approach to international development in order to make an effective contribution to building a better world.

Poverty, hunger and malnutrition are chronic realities in the Sahel region of Africa. It is right for Canadians to contribute to relief efforts in this remarkable part of the world. We must emphasize that there are no simple solutions. We should invest in this ongoing humanitarian crisis using the best minds, the most comprehensive approach and the wisest leadership Canada has to offer.

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