From her temporary home somewhere in East Africa, Rebecca Isaak is monitoring the vital work of World Vision Canada in responding to what she describes as a “triple threat” facing families and entire communities in this part of the world: conflict, climate change, and COVID-19.
Isaak has worked for World Vision as program manager for fragile and humanitarian programs for almost four years and, prior to that, she helped service organizations in the Middle East. With her many years of experience working with the most vulnerable communities, Isaak senses a change.
“I’ve done field visits here and I’ve also heard from my colleagues working directly in the field. This feels different somehow. It’s so hard to put into words what we’re seeing,” she says. “There is this sense of abandonment with countries turning inward for their own protection amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, families here in East Africa are having to sell off household assets and move, with nothing more than what they can carry on their backs, to avoid conflict. The sheer magnitude and scale of it all is difficult to grasp.”
According to United Nations reports and World Vision data, more than 108,000 people in East Africa are now living under urgent and catastrophic famine conditions and facing acute malnutrition, starvation, destitution, and death.
Another seven million people are just one step away from famine and 26 million more are on the verge of needing emergency food assistance. Often, food can be acquired only through such drastic measures as selling property, entering prostitution, or selling young daughters into marriage.
Isaak offers a window into the current reality facing the people of East Africa.
“Families are housed in schools with no bedding and no privacy, putting the safety of women and girls at risk. Others are staying with friends or relatives for as long as they can,” she says. “They’re drinking unsafe water from the rivers and streams, increasing the chance of disease. There are few jobs and prices of food are escalating rapidly.”
In response, World Vision has prioritized support for the countries of East Africa, declaring an emergency response for Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda to avert the looming risk of famine, with plans to reach 2.4 million people, including 490,000 children, with vital aid.
A global leader when it comes to food assistance, World Vision is the largest implementing partner of the Nobel Prize-winning World Food Programme. The World Food Programme buys and transports food to local warehouses. World Vision, because it is well-established and trusted in the regions it serves, quickly takes it from there. The organization hands out food from the backs of trucks hires local women to prepare lunches in schools and offers cash and vouchers to support local businesses and the supply chain.
In place for more than 15 years, World Vision’s cash and voucher program puts cash and vouchers directly into the hands of families and businesses, bypassing local government and bureaucracy. Monthly e-transfers are now possible with the arrival of new technologies.
With the extra financial assistance, women are empowered to make decisions for their households. Small businesses can offset losses and carry on offering much-needed services and products that are so vital to their survival and economic recovery when the time comes.
How to help when more than 155 million people around the world are starving and a global pandemic grips whole cities and countries is something Canadians like retired banker Jan McNeir grapple with. McNeir, who lives in a quiet little community outside of Kensington, PEI, has been a supporter of World Vision for more than 30 years.
“I’ve always been interested in world affairs. I watched the BBC exclusively and I am so worried about what is happening in countries in Africa. I cannot even imagine the children with no food or place to sleep,” she says. “I just feel that every cent will help. I have to do my part.”
With COVID-19 dominating the news, McNeir says she believes Canada is somewhat removed from what is happening around the world.
“There are so many impoverished people. By comparison, we’re so very fortunate here in Canada,” she says.
McNeir says she appreciates World Vision’s long-standing reputation for doing good work. “They’re everywhere in the world and that’s why I continue to support them. We’ve got to be good neighbors. COVID has taught us that,” she says.
“There are so many difficult things in the world right now that you only have a certain amount of bandwidth to understand it all,” Isaak says. “Witnessing a crisis of hunger of this scale, and the fact people aren’t even aware of it, keeps me up at night. The disconnect worries me as a Canadian and as a global citizen.”
Yet she is hopeful that more Canadians will become informed and motivated to support World Vision’s efforts. “I tell my family to do what’s in their heart,” she says.
Isaak says she is moved by the work of her colleagues at World Vision and inspired by the values-based approach of the organization.
“From working with local governments, local leadership, or the chief or elder in charge, there is this incredible trust they have in World Vision,” Isaak says. “I think when you have a name and a bright orange logo that has been in your community for 30 years, it’s truly an asset to us in many places we work. We’re not just there when the money is there; we’re there to help rebuild when the time is right.”
World Vision and its supporters see a world where every child can go to school, has a safe place to sleep, has food and clean drinking water, and much more. We see a world where every child has the tools to thrive.
Rebecca Isaak works as a program manager with the Fragile & Humanitarian Assistance team at World Vision Canada and is currently deployed and working in East Africa.