STORY IN FOCUS. INTERVIEW WITH KEYAN SALARKIA AND PIEN KLIEVERIK FROM SAVE THE CHILDREN
Q1. Please explain the mandate of Save the Children (STC) and how, if at all, it has changed since 2017 with the declaration of famine in South Sudan and the rise of food insecurity more generally across the ‘four famine countries’ and the impact of this upon children.
One of the first briefs we both had was the Horn of Africa food crises and, related to that, the ‘four famines’. It was striking even then that the global response, understandably, was very focused on the hunger – rather than the conflict – dimensions of the serious humanitarian situation in South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria.
Looking at the period since 2017 and the declaration of famine we’ve seen a consolidation of ‘a new normal’. There has been an adjustment that expects, and to an extent accepts, that in conflicts and protracted crises large portions of the population will experience quite extreme levels of food insecurity.
That has the potential to mask criminal acts as unavoidable products of war, and absolve those with influence of their responsibilities to prevent and mitigate conflict related hunger.
Q2. Please, could you explain why children are more vulnerable in relation to hunger and conflict crises, and what STC’s focus has been since 2017, and will be going into 2019 with the centenary of STC?
Across the four famines countries, and beyond, we see a really strong link between acute malnutrition and killer diseases – to which children are especially vulnerable and are far more deadly than hunger itself. In the last few weeks, and throughout the conflict, we’ve seen spikes in cholera in Yemen. In South Sudan it’s similar, and in Somalia pneumonia related to malnutrition is deadly. Insufficient access to food can go hand in hand with insufficient access to basic healthcare, so when hundreds of thousands of children are acutely malnourished and their immune systems are at their weakest, the threat of disease is a real concern.
Acute malnutrition and stunting aren’t just short-term, a lack of adequate nutrition, especially in the first years of life, can lead to life-long consequences.
Beyond the physical impact of hunger in conflict, food insecurity has a range of secondary effects that can present a host of protection risks for children. Families may resort to negative coping mechanisms including forced and early child marriage, removing children from school, and child exploitation and labor. These and other risks can be even more profound when people are forced to flee in the face of starvation. It’s also really important to remember that the impact of conflict-related hunger differs for boys and girls – sometimes deepening underlying gender inequalities, as well as presenting new risks.
Q3. As we know there are a lot of myths surrounding famine, starvation and food insecurity, its causes and its effects, which can distract or dilute international attention and engagement with civil society, can you outline STC’s perspective on the causes and effects of starvation from a field perspective?
While acknowledging that the leading cause of hunger crises overall is conflict, we also need to interrogate precisely how conflict drives hunger in different contexts so we’re clear on how to respond. To take the four famines, in Somalia long-term conflict dynamics coupled with drought created a perfect storm. In Northeast Nigeria access and population movement were key. In Yemen, the behavior of external actors has been more of an issue than in the other three. In South Sudan, the diffuse nature of insecurity and real operational challenges were/are massive barriers. These are over-simplifications but show that we need to look quite carefully at what’s happening to inform a response.
That said, there are some common themes. Denial of humanitarian access – which is a grave violation under the Children and Armed Conflict agenda and contrary to International Humanitarian Law – is pervasive. Similarly, civilian objects and infrastructure – for instance markets, agricultural land, and water sources too often come under attack. Those are some of the more direct drivers we see, but sometimes as damaging is the overall effect of conflict on economies and infrastructure. Inflation, declining spending power, and a breakdown in health and social services can both increase food insecurity and reduce the availability of support and assistance.
Q4. How if at all, has UNSC 2417 impacted the way you work?
On the advocacy side of things its opened up a new route to press behavior change and action from the international community. For instance, with Yemen it created space for the Emergency Relief Coordinator to press for anti-famine measures through the security council. That route wasn’t there in the same way before, nor was the consensus that this is an issue of security and protection. What is still unclear however, is how that type of action can be made more routine and systematic.
2417 shouldn’t be seen as the ‘four famines resolution’, but rather as a platform for continued international efforts to address the political and conflict related drivers of hunger, and the violations of international law bound up in those.
Q5. Why, if at all, is compliance with legal frameworks associated to food and humanitarian access so critical to STC’s work?
Our organisation was founded in response to the starvation of children in Europe following the first world war, so the law of armed conflict which emerged from those wars – especially on starvation and humanitarian action – are engrained in our founding purpose.
100 years on, we’ve seen civilians and children put at the center of war. Save the Children believes there are three drivers of this – first, states are failing to uphold norms and standards in war. This includes the denial of humanitarian access, disproportionate and discriminatory attacks, and using starvation as a method of war. Second, perpetrators of violations against children are not held to account – thus deepening impunity and leading to greater harm to children. Finally, there is a deficiency in the practical action required to protect children and enable their recovery.
To tackle all of these, we need to restore the centrality of the protection of civilians. International humanitarian law offers most of the provisions required to do this but is inadequately enforced – especially in areas like starvation which is full of challenges. Despite these difficulties, the scale of need demands improved compliance and enforcement. In our report earlier this year, we highlighted that potentially hundreds of thousands of children have been killed by the indirect effects of war – such as hunger and disease. The stakes are too high to not invest serious energy and political capital in compliance.
Q6. What information concerning the law or practice would better equip humanitarians like those from STC currently in the field to deliver aid and continue to protect children?
There is definitely a need for unequivocal guidance on what behaviors and actions constitute a violation of relevant laws.
Beyond that unenviable task though, there is also a need for an improvement in the systems in place to record and use that data for accountability. There are lots of lessons to be learned from the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism for the Children and Armed Conflict agenda, and this needs to be sensitive to the tension between reporting and delivery, but we need to close the gap between the law and the evidence. This is a tricky area, politically and technically, so it needs proper time, space and resources to work through.
One other area is the so-called ‘White flag Protocol’. The Protocol provides a reliable means for both combatant and neutral parties in conflict zones to digitally communicate pre-defined signs and signals – such as a food or road blockage – using blockchain technology. Better use of these kinds of innovations might be able to provide the type of information to deliver aid and to protect children but also work back to seek accountability for those using hunger as a weapon of war.