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In crises, feeding the weakest first saves lives, study shows

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 18 Apr 2013 15:17 GMT
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Removes words wrongly attributed to Wein in paragraph 4

LONDON (AlertNet) – We know the picture too well: queues of hungry children with swollen bellies and big eyes reaching out for a portion of food in some remote part of the world.

The relief agencies arrive and start handing out food, allocating often limited supplies under a standard policy called blanket distribution, which aims at feeding as many hungry people as possible. This means the most vulnerable may not survive.

Is there a better way to save lives when resources are scarce? Can the aid world do better? Stanford University Professor Lawrence M. Wein thinks it can.

“You can do better than that. You’ll actually save more lives by not using blanket distribution”, Wein told AlertNet.

According to a new study which Wein co-authored, concentrating limited food resources on children at greatest risk of dying, combined with a more complex assessment of undernourishment, could reduce the number of deaths and life-limiting disabilities by 9%.

Alternatively, aid groups could continue to use blanket distribution and achieve the same results as they do now, but reduce their costs by 61%, the study shows.

The researchers from Bergen University in Norway and Stanford University in the United States based their findings on mathematical analysis of almost 6,000 undernourished children aged under five from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They found that it was more effective to give a full ration of food to those closest to dying, than to divide up all the food and spread it among as many people as possible.

This apparently harsh approach may not at first appeal to aid workers, who would be forced to choose between the hungry and the hungrier and send away the first group empty-handed.

But, Wein argues, aid agencies are already giving priority to some children over others. The WFP’s Greg Barrow agreed, telling AlertNet “In most emergencies there is a form of targeting. We do try to reach the most vulnerable groups.”

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