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© Reuters. A child walks past temporary shelters in Kasari camp for internally displaced people after fleeing a severe drought, in Dolo, Gedo region, Somalia, May 24, 2022. Photo taken on May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Faisal Omar

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Written by Edward McAllister

DAKAR (Reuters) – This year a small charity opened a clinic in northern Burkina Faso to care for thousands of women and children who have fled Islamist militants who have wreaked havoc on the edge of the desert.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, global supply chains collapsed and the cost of building materials, fuel and food soared in West Africa. The founder of the charity, Bockari Ouedraogo, had to make a difficult decision: to stop building the clinic after only the foundations had been laid.

Similar calls are being made in sub-Saharan Africa, where post-war aid projects in Ukraine are under threat, potentially putting the lives of millions at risk.

Humanitarian organizations, already grappling with widespread price hikes amid the pandemic, say the crisis in Europe has made matters worse. Even the cost of life-saving RUTF for malnourished children has skyrocketed.

To make matters worse, some donors have diverted state aid from the worst-affected African countries to support the more than six million refugees who have fled the fighting in Ukraine.

Denmark said in March it would halve its aid to Burkina Faso this year to take in Ukrainian refugees. Its budget for Mali, Burkina’s neighbour, which is also in the grip of an Islamist insurgency, has fallen by 40%.

Sweden also announced that it would transfer $1 billion from its aid budget to cover the cost of hosting Ukrainian refugees.

The Ouedraogo clinic was much needed in Kaya, a town of dirt roads and squat brick buildings surrounded by barren land. Its population has swelled in recent years with thousands of neighboring villages fleeing attacks by militants, straining an already basic health care system.

“What happened in Ukraine happened at the same time that the crisis in that country was getting worse,” said Ouedraogo, who heads the BO Foundation in Burkina Faso.

“We hope that all donors can get their attention,” he said. “We felt we were working to reduce the number of deaths and child deaths.”

emergency levels

It is similar in Sudan. In a southern region facing conflict and food shortages, a children’s hospital run by Senegalese medical charity Alima faces a $300,000 funding gap as costs rise, including fuel for the clinic’s generator.

At this rate, Alima’s operations manager, Kadir Esali, said that Alima would have to close the program.

Action Against Hunger, a charity with activities across Africa, has seen a 20% to 30% increase in the cost of food items such as rice, oil and sugar over the past year.

This will reduce its coverage by the same amount, said Mamadou Diop, a representative from his office in West Africa.

“We have to completely rethink our approach,” Diop said. “We have to decide, should we reduce the supply or reduce the number of beneficiaries?”

The problem is not limited to Africa. The United Nations World Food Program feeds 13 million people each month in Yemen, where years of war have devastated the economy, but has cut rations for eight million of them since January.

It may need to make further cuts after it collected a quarter of the $2 billion it needs for Yemen this year from international donors.

“We take food from the poor and feed the hungry,” said Richard Ragan, WFP representative in Yemen.

“In June, we have to make some difficult decisions to feed no more than five million, those who are really most at risk,” he said.

Unique in the range

However, Africa’s problems are unique in their scope.

Conflicts in Ethiopia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sahel have forced millions to flee their homes. According to the World Bank, nearly half a billion people live in extreme poverty.

West Africa alone faces unprecedented food shortages, threatening nearly 40 million people, due in part to drought and the impact of the war in Ukraine on food prices and supplies.

Health experts say the impact of higher costs on aid organizations varies.

Smaller nonprofits that rely on donor institutions like governments may struggle to get more annual budgets than a larger charity like Doctors Without Borders, which raises money through public campaigns.

Doctors Without Borders said it had no plans to scale back its operations due to the war in Ukraine.

But few of them are immune. Declining pre-war funding in Ukraine forced the World Food Program to cut food rations in seven countries in West and Central Africa.

In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, the number of people receiving emergency aid from the World Food Program has fallen to 650,000 from 1.9 million in September.

Like Burkina Faso and Mali, northern Nigeria suffers from an ongoing Islamist insurgency.

Health professionals and aid workers said it’s too early to gauge exactly the impact of the cuts on communities, and it could be months before we see how much damage the cuts are causing.

“Further funding shortfalls will contribute to deteriorating food security and nutrition in places where food insecurity has already reached an emergency,” said WFP West Africa spokesperson Djunside Madjiangar.

Spike Bloomy

In Somalia, one-year-old Hassan was crying in a blue plastic bucket suspended from a scale while a medical technician recorded his weight: 5.6kg.

It was an improvement. Hassan weighed just 5.2kg when he was first treated for severe acute malnutrition three months ago at a volunteer-run clinic in the south of the country – about half the weight of a boy his age.

His partial recovery is due to a sweet peanut paste called Plumpy’Nut, which was developed by French scientists in the 1990s and has become an important weapon in the fight against child malnutrition.

According to UNICEF, three small sachets per day for six weeks can return a hungry child to full health.

“It was much worse,” said the boy’s mother, Hassan Habiba Muhammad Noor, patting his bony legs under an oversized shirt. “Plumpy’Nut really helped him.”

UNICEF says it spends $137 million annually on therapeutic foods, and the total market is estimated at up to $400 million.

But aid agencies say it’s getting too expensive.

Over the past year, the cost of Plumpy’Nut has increased by 23%, including a 9% increase since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Nutriset, lead producer of Plumpy’Nut, told Reuters.

A letter to customers in March warning of impending price increases said the cost of ingredients such as palm oil, milk powder and whey and packaging including tins for bags had risen sharply. Shipping costs have also increased significantly. Overall costs are up 39%, Nutrist said.

“The war in Ukraine indirectly affects commodity prices, and prices will continue to rise in the coming weeks and months,” Nutrist said.

Increases worry UNICEF. The price of therapeutic food is expected to rise by 16% over the next six months due to the turmoil in Ukraine and the pandemic. Without additional funding, 600,000 children could miss out on treatment, she said in May.

Aides say the effects are already starting to show.

Alima’s budget for buying and shipping a batch of Plumpy’Nut to a project in a poor area in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is about 175,000 euros ($188,000).

But with increased fuel costs and the price of Plumpy’Nut, delivery now costs 230,000 euros, according to Hassan Bouziane, who manages logistics at Alima.

Now he has to go to donors to get more money, which takes up valuable time.

“The impact on the beneficiaries will be enormous,” Bouziane said. “Treating a five-year-old takes six weeks. If you lose two weeks, that’s a third of your cure.”

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