Last October I was in Malawi, a small and very poor country in southeastern Africa. This is what did not surprise me: almost half the children in Malawi are stunted physically and mentally because of a lack of food and nutrients. They do less well in school. They do less well in work. They are sick more often. Worldwide, stunting affects one in four children. One in four.
Environmentalists and nature writers like myself don’t usually think of childhood malnutrition as one of our issues. But in a world of over seven billion human beings—with population still growing among our two billion most malnourished—we will never have a healthy Earth until we have an Earth of healthy children.
In the last few decades, we have learned a lot about ending chronic malnutrition, and I wasn’t surprised either by the progressive programs I saw. Empowering women is key, and in Malawi, I visited women care groups where women sat in a circle, problem-solved, and inspired each other. I clapped and sang at recipe days where men learned how to cook. Poor sanitation is behind half of malnutrition; I went to remote villages proud of their new latrines and hand-washing facilities. I saw government health clinics in these remote villages providing free implants and injections to prevent pregnancy—the same technology we have here in the United States. I spoke to smallholder farmers growing new varieties of drought-resistant, nutritious crops.
But this is what did surprise me: almost every project I saw was funded by USAID. Rather wonderfully, this overturned many of my old assumptions. Yes, America should still improve many aspects of our foreign aid. But under President Obama, programs began to focus on helping smallholder farmers and the poorest of the poor. And it has worked. In Malawi, since 2010, poverty has dropped by 18 percent and childhood stunting by 14 percent. Other countries like Honduras and Cambodia have seen even greater progress.
Of course, I am afraid this will change under our new administration. I fear many more children in the world will again suffer the utter misery and suffering of malnutrition and go on to lead lives of diminished potential.
In the new landscape of America, with the ground shifting under our feet, I do not believe that the issue of foreign aid is more important than a woman’s reproductive rights here at home. Or voting rights. Or the Endangered Species Act. Or race relations. Rather, I believe deeply that all these social concerns are one concern. I believe we cannot—we must not—pit national problems against international problems, tax reform against climate change, immigration policy against sexism, education against hunger. We cannot divide up the world like that or let ourselves be divided.
Because I have only so much time and resources in my personal life, I have decided to begin with one issue which I can burrow down into. One issue that I will research and know and examine thoughtfully and deeply and make my own. For many reasons, I am choosing the issue of our foreign aid to the world’s two billion poorest. I will be watching closely what happens in the area of USAID, and I will advocate for programs that do good rather than harm. I will advocate for an understanding of all our connections to the world. An understanding of our larger self-interest, as well as our moral imperative.
I will be standing right next to people who have chosen other issues equally central to what needs to be done today. I see us all standing together now, shoulder to shoulder, not competing with each other but raising one voice, one song with many harmonies. Or, to use another metaphor—in Malawi, there is a saying: Mutu umodzi susenza denga. One head cannot hold up a roof. In the building of a home, the last step is for a group of villagers to lift up together the thatched roof onto the walls of burnt-mud bricks.
One head cannot hold up a roof. A healthy Earth requires an Earth of healthy children. One song with many harmonies. I learned a lot in Malawi last October.
Sharman Apt Russell
Read essays by Sharman Apt Russell appearing in Terrain.org: “Ghosts” and “Letter to My Father Concerning the State of the World.”
Header photo of Sharman Apt Russell and villagers in Malawi, and individual photo of Sharman Apt Russell, by Peter Russell.