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Farmers selling animals indicates severe food crisis in Mali

Child holding bowl

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Emptying your savings account to buy food is a last resort. But that’s the equivalent of what farmers in Mali are doing by selling off their cattle to buy cereals which will feed their families for longer.

Cows, goats and sheep are important assets for many people in this region but, with food prices rising beyond the reach of most families, people have no choice but to cash in on them.


Red Cross scales up response to food crisis in Burkina Faso

Mohammed waiting for his food voucher

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Before mid-morning it is already hot in Tin Akoff and Mohamed Ingouda, 46, stands patiently in line waiting for his Burkinabe Red Cross food voucher.

“We are all suffering due to the bad rain and bad harvest,” says Mohamed, who is a farmer. “I have 11 children to feed and of course I have a problem to find food.”

In 1974, Mohamed moved to the Ivory Coast where he had a job as a fishmonger, but in 2007 he lost his job and went home to Tin Akoff, in the north of Burkina Faso. Like most people in the Sahel region where he lives, Mohamed now survives by growing millet and sorghum and tending livestock.


Sahel food crisis: let’s make it personal

Ouilimatou in his grandmother's lap

© Sarah Oughton/IFRC

Let me tell you about a boy I met last month who I couldn’t help.

I was in a remote village in the middle of the hot, barren, sandy savannah in Burkina Faso. There, I met Ouilimatou Diko, a young boy, not even two years old, who had just been diagnosed by a Red Cross nurse as acutely malnourished.

I spent several weeks travelling through Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali to report on the looming food crisis. I met many mothers and fathers who told me their stories about how they are literally on the brink of survival, how their children are hungry and the burden they carry worrying about how to provide the next meal.



Living with HIV: a lesson in love and humanity

Mnyamezeli sitting in her home

©Ziv Koren/BRC

There is no line between laughter and tears in Mnyamezeli Mbongwa’s house. A 68-year-old grandmother, you wouldn’t know it to look at her as she moves with a joyful energy.

And the camera loves her. She has the strong features you might find in carved ebony. Her household is large and encompasses more than its fair share of tragedy, yet it is also one of the most laughter-filled homes you could hope to encounter.

In a large round room with a mud floor she bustles around tidying up and tending to Asiphe, her 13-year-old disabled grandson who lies on a mat on the floor. There is no sofa in this home, just a hard wooden bench.

Orphans of HIV

Mnyamezeli pauses for a moment, gathers her skirts and sits down to answer a question.

“I was young when I got married, I was 16,” she says. “I have three children, but one of my daughters died from TB. Later I realised she’d had HIV. She left three children who my husband and I now look after – my granddaughter Thozama who is 20 and has a disability, and my two grandsons, 16-year-old Siphosihle who is healthy, and Asiphe who is severely disabled and was born with HIV.”


International Women’s Day 2012


Guest post by Flora Watters.

Every year, people celebrate International Women’s Day in wildly different ways: some organise a meal with friends; others rally thousands together for a cause. On the first International Women’s Day 101 years ago there were rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland campaigning for women’s rights to education, the vote, and to equal pay.

However you celebrate this International Women’s Day, it’s important to reflect on which issues of inequality still remain – especially in developing nations where women’s human rights may not be adequately protected by the law.


Red Cross responds to food crisis in Burkina Faso


Up to 23 million people in Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and some parts of Senegal are facing a food crisis. Erratic rainfall, droughts and insect infestations have led to poor harvests and could cause major malnutrition.

Malnutrition rates are generally high in the Sahel region, particularly affecting children under two. The peak of malnutrition rates will start to be seen from April. Unless action is taken now, over one million children under the age of five are likely to suffer from acute malnutrition.

Last week, I was sent to Dakar, Senegal, with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as part of a team assessing the impact of drought in the Sahel. We are here for a month to support the national Red Cross organisations in these countries in producing a plan of action. My role is to provide advice and communications materials to generate public awareness, support fundraising and advocate for long-term solutions to drought.


Change is needed in the humanitarian system’s response to disasters

Both within Somalia and in neighbouring countries, many people are living in camps

© IFRC/ Olav Saltbones

The British Red Cross welcomes a report released by Oxfam today which highlights the need for the humanitarian system to shift towards a local response, rather than global, when disasters strike.

Greater numbers of people are being affected by disasters due to issues which include:

As the report explains, the international humanitarian system will struggle to cope with those affected when disasters strike without having local response mechanisms in place.

For the British Red Cross, as part of an international Movement, working with local staff and volunteers is always central in any response to a disaster. And every Red Cross and Red Crescent National Society is a neutral auxiliary to its government, meaning their volunteers and staff are active from the earliest moments in a crisis.

 In 2010, when an unprecedented earthquake struck Haiti, it was local volunteers who were first on the scene. Since then, the British Red Cross has been working closely with the Haitian Red Cross to help survivors recover.

Prepared before disaster strikes

Child with bowl of porridge

© Katrina Crew/BRC

As Oxfam’s report emphasises, there is an increasing need for emergency resources to be closer to where disasters happen.

Around the world the Red Cross has 187 National Societies and each has its own emergency supplies stored in-country. However, when large-scale disasters happen there can of course be a need for international assistance.

At the British Red Cross our aim is to buy and store goods locally so as to speed up our response, boost local economies and ensure assistance is relevant to local society and culture. For instance, we store emergency relief items in warehouses in Kuala Lumpur and Panama, which are strategically positioned close to areas more prone to disasters.

If we don’t have what is needed in our pre-positioned stock another approach we use, as for example in our response to the current food crisis in east Africa, is to release cash to buy items in-country or nearby. This is an efficient way of responding and supports the local economy.

When responding to an emergency, the Red Cross co-ordinates with affected governments the UN and other humanitarian organisations – however co-ordination in the chaos of a disaster is always a challenge and all actors have a responsibility to improve ways of working together more effectively.

Reducing the risk of disasters

Suchitra Rani teaching cyclone preparedness to other women

© BRC/ Sarah Oughton

Investment in reducing the risk of disaster is a core part of British Red Cross work. When we plan a recovery programme to help people get back on their feet, we also look for ways to lessen the impact of future disasters. In Haiti, we’ve seen how improving the ways we communicate with people affected by disasters is vital to ensuring that communities are at the heart of and engaged in their own recovery.

However, it’s not only in the aftermath of disasters that we help communities be better prepared. Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, but the work that the government, the Red Cross and other organisations have done to help communities at risk of cyclones get prepared has had a huge impact in recent years. In part, this work can be attributed for the fact that in 2007 Cyclone Sidr resulted in more than 3,300 people losing their lives, where as in 2009 when Cyclone Aila struck the number of lives lost – while still too many – was reduced to 190, although 300,000 lost their homes and livelihoods.

When disasters strike humanitarian aid is essential and the generosity of donors at such times helps save lives. Although the emphasis remains on responding to crises, as Oxfam’s report points out, there is not enough investment in preventing and reducing the risk of disasters.

We know that when the TV cameras shine the spotlight on a humanitarian disaster people are willing to give a donation, but raising money to help people prepare for a disaster that hasn’t happened proves a much bigger challenge.

And yet according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), every $1 spent on reducing the risk of disasters could save $4 in responding to an emergency.

I doubt many people know that and it’s not exactly a headline winner – but if anyone has a bright idea on how to get people excited about putting their hand in their pocket to support disaster risk reduction please let me know!

Visit our website to find out more about how we help people prepare for disasters

Bangladesh: a cyclone photo story

Trees destroyed by cyclone in Bangladesh

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Bangladesh has always been a frequent victim of cyclones, but a number of complex issues mean cyclones, and the tidal surges they often cause, are having an increasingly devastating impact on people living along the coast.

Population pressure, land shortage, urbanisation, governance and environmental management are all contributing factors, along with any rise in sea level from the impact of climate change* , which challenge the sustainability of many people’s means of making a living.

Fishing families and others on low incomes are particularly vulnerable. As they are already poor, when a cyclone or flood takes everything they own, they are left with literally nothing. They have no reserves in the bank and no insurance to help them start over.

The trauma of living through a cyclone only gives way to the overwhelming struggle to survive in its aftermath. And of course the survivors are the lucky ones.

It would be understandable to think that hundreds of thousands of people are facing a bleak future. But that’s not quite the whole story.

Many communities are defying the odds, hoping for, and finding, a better future for themselves and their children.

You can find out more in the photo story below.

Our programme


© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Thanks to a five-year Bangladesh Red Crescent programme (2006-2011), supported by the British Red Cross,  84 communities are now better at protecting people and their means of making a living when a cyclone strikes.

We focused on those living along the coast and most at risk of losing their lives, in particular:

  • women and children
  • fishermen.

Alamgir Hossain, from Ghutabacha community, says: “Knowledge is not expensive but it saves lives. Before Cyclone Sidr in 2007, people didn’t bother much about cyclone warnings.

“But over the last few years, since the Red Crescent has been working with us, people’s attitudes have changed. Now people listen to the warnings and know what to do.”

Safety at sea


© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Facing a cyclone at sea is a risky business. But without a radio and understanding of early warning signals, this is the terrifying situation experienced by many Bangladeshi fishermen.

We’ve trained 300 fishermen in safety at sea and provided them with:

  • radio
  • torch
  • buoy
  • compass
  • first aid kit.

The training included: use of the equipment; understanding the cyclone warning system; first aid; and search and rescue.

Empowering women

Group of women at a meeting

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

It is common practice in Bangladesh for women to only leave the house with permission from their husband.

When a cyclone hits and a woman’s husband is out, despite the danger, she often doesn’t feel able to leave the home to seek safe shelter. As a result many women and children may die unnecessarily.

Through our programme, we tackled this problem by:

  • setting up women’s forums and building women’s confidence through training
  • working with the wider community, including religious leaders, to change attitudes to women.

Community action

Hazard map

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Setting up community committees, made up of volunteers that motivate and organise their community to prepare for and respond to cyclones, has been key to the programme’s success and sustainability.

Alagmir Hossain, who is the secretary general of the Ghutabacha community disaster preparedness committee, says: “We are much better informed and organised. We’ve developed hazard maps that identify the homes and people most at risk, as well as the location of shelters.

“I feel confident we’ll continue sharing this knowledge and using the skills we’ve gained to save lives.”

A safer future

A man throwing net in fish farm

© Sarah Oughton/BRC

Following the completion of this work, the Bangladesh Red Crescent, with support from the British Red Cross, is developing a programme to help communities become more resilient, not just to cyclones but also a wider range of disasters and day to day crises.

Helping people protect their livelihoods as well as their lives will be a vital part of this work.

* UNISDR: Climate Change Impact And Disaster Vulnerabilities In The Coastal Areas Of Bangladesh

View the photos on Flickr

Find out more about how we’re helping people in Bangladesh prepare for disasters