By Michele Learner, Bread for the World Institute
We all hear a lot of bad news stories. Some of the worst are about violence. Currently there are 11 active civil wars plus some “lower level” conflicts (how many depends on what definition you use). About 80 percent of all spending on humanitarian relief goes to help people affected by conflict — rather than, for example, natural disasters.
If you look at a map showing countries and regions where progress against hunger has stalled or been undone, it’s striking how many “hunger hotspots” coincide with conflict zones. The world will certainly not be able to end hunger by 2030 — a goal that 193 countries, including the United States, have committed to — if we cannot make substantial gains in ending armed conflict.
The media focuses on battles, territory, allies, refugees, what’s at stake, devastation, and other “current events” aspects of war. What we think about less often is what these societies were like before the war, and the enormous changes in the lives of combatants and all those caught in the middle. Right now, we have a striking example of just how quickly armed conflict can destroy decades of progress against hunger and poverty: Syria.
Many of the other countries at war or newly post-conflict are low-income nations unfamiliar to most Americans. But before its civil war began in 2011, Syria was a middle-income country in a region that had long received prominent U.S. media coverage. Syria’s 2010 report on progress toward meeting the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, the precursor to today’s Sustainable Development Goals) noted that by 2007, extreme poverty had fallen to 9.9 percent in urban areas and 15.1 percent in rural areas. The proportion of people who could not afford a standard list of basic foods, said to be “below the food poverty line,” fell from 3.6 percent of the population in 1996 to just 1.2 percent in 2007.
Syria’s health statistics also portrayed a society moving toward prosperity. For example, maternal mortality was cut nearly in half over a 15-year period, from 107 deaths per 100,000 births in 1993 to 56 in 2008. The percentage of young children who were underweight had fallen to 9.8 percent by 2006 – still too high, of course, but encouraging in the context of child malnutrition in many countries. According to the MDG report, “… there was a notable improvement in the conditions of the poorest of the poor. The under-five [child] mortality rate fell from 41.7 for every 1,000 live births in 1993 to 18.9 in 2008. If this trend continues, then the MDG target will be met even before 2015.” Sadly, the war instead brought the trend to a screeching halt, then reversed it.
Syria: Then and Now
The war now affects more than 80 percent of Syria’s children. Prewar Syria was making good progress toward the MDG of providing universal primary education, with more than 97 percent of children ages 6 to 11 enrolled in school in 2007. Today, according to UNICEF, more than half of school-aged children in Syria are not in school.
UNICEF said in early 2016 that more than 14 million children are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance and that 5.5 million Syrian children now live in refugee camps. “Right now, hunger is a huge threat for children,” UNICEF reported. “[In 2015] we treated almost 12,000 children in Syria alone for severe malnutrition. A further 600,000 children were provided with nutrition supplements.” One reason for the spike in hunger is that the country’s food production has dropped by 40 percent from pre-conflict levels.
Bread for the World and our partners continue to emphasize that even brief periods of hunger in childhood, particularly before age 2, can cause lasting damage to children’s health and development. But UNICEF has received only 6 percent of the 2016 funding it needs for Syrian children.
The children who survive the war will be less healthy and less educated than their parents and older siblings. And there is a further threat to this generation of Syrians: as in other recent conflicts, children are soldiers. As the war continues, the children in the military are getting younger and younger. In a UNICEF assessment of child soldiers who were first recruited in 2015, half were under 15 and some were as young as 7. Moreover, children are not only providing support, as did the 15- to 17-year-old boys who were the majority of child soldiers in earlier years. They are fighting on the front lines. They are receiving military training, using weapons, guarding checkpoints, and evacuating the wounded. Some have been used as executioners.
Even once the war is over, building peace and ending hunger in Syria, as in other post-conflict nations, will depend on breaking the cycle of poverty, missed educational opportunities, and violence among the survivors — particularly children and teens. Efforts to help children resume their education and rejoin their communities have met with mixed success in other recent post-conflict situations. But if post-conflict societies are to revive their economies and make progress against hunger and poverty, the world must identify and implement effective strategies to help reintegrate children for whom deprivation, loss, and violence have become normalized.
Michele Learner is associate editor at Bread for the World Institute.