Burundi’s forgotten crisis

June 24, 2016
Written by Kirk Prichard
Photo by Kirk Prichard

Climate disasters, and political crises have caused thousands to flee Burundi in the last year. Kirk Prichard, Concern’s Director of Humanitarian Programs, explains that the world must not forget Burundi.

We are living in an era of unprecedented need for humanitarian aid. A million refugees pouring across borders into Europe; horrendous, mysterious diseases that make air travel seem like a game of Russian roulette; massive earthquakes destroying hundreds of thousands of houses in an instant. These are the kinds of emergencies that make headlines, but there are many smaller, lesser known crises that often fly under our radar. Their lack of visibility makes it harder for humanitarian organizations to garner support, leaving millions of people without desperately needed aid.

One such emergency is currently occurring in a small country called Burundi, and unless you are a coffee connoisseur, there is a very good chance you have never heard of it. It is not a development poster child like its neighbor to the north, Rwanda, nor does it have the immense natural resources found to the west in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But nevertheless, there is a humanitarian emergency unfolding there, largely out of the public eye.

Concern Worldwide's Kirk Prichard hands out items such as cooking utensils, jerry cans, blankets, and plastic sheeting

Concern Worldwide’s Kirk Prichard hands out items such as cooking utensils, jerry cans, blankets, and plastic sheeting to people in Cibitoke, Burundi, who were hit with heavy rain and flooding. Photo: Irenee Nduwayezu

Located almost smack dab in the middle of Africa, Burundi is a small, rural country of about 10 million people. It is one of the world’s poorest countries. Just under nine percent of its children do not live to see their fifth birthday, though in some regions this figure can be as high as 15%. Burundi’s civil war, which ended in 2005, destroyed many schools.

According to WFP, 4.6 million people in Burundi are today food insecure. 590,000 of them need urgent food assistance.

Since April 2015, Burundi has been hit by a social and political crisis which has heavily affected the population. So far, the crisis has led more than 265,000 to flee the country and to find refuge in the neighboring states where they live in precarious situation, uncertain of the future.

According to WFP, 4.6 million people in Burundi are today food insecure. 590,000 of them need urgent food assistance.

Concern Worldwide's Nijimbere Alphonsine, giving out cash transfers

Concern Worldwide’s Nijimbere Alphonsine, giving out cash transfers to community members in Cibitoke, Burundi, who were particularly hard-hit by rains and flooding. Photo: Irenee Nduwayezu

The instability has been compounded by the El Niño weather pattern, which has caused heavy rainfall, winds, landslides, and floods. Flooding has devastated 15 out of the country’s 18 provinces, destroying thousands of houses and tens of thousands of acres of crops, sending food prices up. Civil unrest has set the economy teetering on the brink of collapse. There has also been a spike in reported cases of malaria and cholera.

As you might have guessed, despite overwhelming need, funding for this emergency has been practically non-existent. Almost all funding is coming from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund which gives to “silent and severely underfunded emergencies” — an appropriate name if ever there was one.

If the international community does not recognize the tragedy unfolding in Burundi, thousands of lives will be threatened and real development gains will be reversed.

It is critical that we act now to help the people of Burundi, as experts warn that there is a high chance the region could experience La Niña conditions later in the year. Severe La Niñas can cause devastating flooding and drought, compounding an already fragile situation.

Concern Worldwide is committed to responding to these underreported emergencies. In Burundi we are providing emergency supplies, nutrition programming, and livelihood support to tens of thousands. Our health programs in Cibitoke and Kirundo Provinces aim to improve the health and wellbeing of children, tackling malnutrition, but also ensuring that children under five can receive treatment for malaria and respiratory and diarrheal diseases. The program reaches upwards of 36,000 children in Kirundo, nearly 50,000 in Citbitoke, as well as nearly 10,000 pregnant women. Our nutrition programming also seeks to improve household child health care and feeding practices.

Beatrice Mukandagano, a widow and mother of four, is a beneficiary of Concern's Graduation program in Kirundo province, Burundi.

Beatrice Mukandagano, a widow and mother of four, is a beneficiary of Concern’s Graduation program in Kirundo province, Burundi. She managed to build herself a house and has bought land to cultivate. She said that before Concern came to her community, she was so poor that she did not even have a place to sleep with her children. Photo: Irénée Nduwayezu

As we work to provide the essential life-sustaining resources to those who need them most, our Graduation program is working with 2,000 households on their long-term development to break the cycle of poverty through a step-by-step process that includes skill-building, support for health and education, and access to financial services. We also jump-start small businesses by providing small cash grants. It’s a simple approach that is working, but continued instability puts all this at risk.

If the international community does not recognize the tragedy unfolding in Burundi, thousands of lives will be threatened and real development gains will be reversed, consigning the country to its position near the bottom of the list of the world’s poorest countries.

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