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How Can Aid be Working When Millions Still Starve?

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With a hunger crisis sweeping across the Sahel affecting eight African countries and putting the fragile existences of a million children in jeopardy now may seem a strange time to be talking about the remarkable progress for the world's poorest children that has been achieved over the past 20 years.

But new independent research by the Overseas Development Institute has found that as a result of international aid together with five other key factors, over four million fewer children under five are dying each year than in 1990. According to the report published yesterday by Save the Children, between 1999 and 2009, 56 million more children were enrolled in school, and damage to children's physical and mental development (stunting) because of malnutrition almost halved between 1990 and 2008. What's more, a hundred and thirty one countries now have over 90% immunisation coverage for diphtheria, tetanus and major preventable childhood diseases such as measles, compared to just 63 in 1990.

So why, if development works and such progress has been made, are 300 children in the world still dying from hunger every hour and why is West Africa facing yet another devastating hunger crisis?

There is, in fact, no contradiction between the remarkable progress made in improving children's lives over the last two decades and the fact that there is still a great distance to travel. The current humanitarian emergency in the Sahel is rooted in many factors - political and economic as well as climactic and environmental - but it also offers some stark lessons about the need for effective long-term development.

Food crises do not occur overnight but build slowly over months or even years and well-planned and adequately resourced development programmes are essential not only for wider progress but also to ensure populations are resilient in the face of the type of drought currently gripping the Sahel.

It is clear from this new research that the greatest progress for children occurs where governments take a lead in providing and regulating programmes and services. But even where there is good governance and strong political leadership overseas, aid remains crucial. Aid buys the vaccines, pays for the building materials to build schools and pays for midwives to be trained.

Botswana, for example, has seen a huge reduction in children born with HIV thanks to a programme to reduce mother-to-child transmission, paid for by aid. In Bangladesh sustained investment in child health funded by donations from international agencies and governments including the UK, resulted in a significant reduction in child mortality.

With Britain in economic difficulties and the country experiencing cuts across a range of public services it is inevitable that tough questions will be asked about how our country spends its money and how much aid Britain can afford to give. But no matter what hardships we in Britain face, they do not compare with those confronting children in the developing world. And this report finds that "development assistance plays a key role in improving children's wellbeing".

Our investment is making a difference and needs to continue and improve if we are to continue the progress of the last 20 years and ensure that children in 20 years time will not still face the kind of food crisis now threatening their lives across West Africa.

The generosity of the British people has helped transform millions of young lives. The UK's aid programme has made a clear and measurable difference. British aid vaccinates one child every two seconds, saving a staggering 1.4 million lives over the next five years.

For the past 82 years the British government has given overseas aid to save lives and support long-term development overseas. For 82 years the vast majority of British people have supported this policy and felt it the right thing to do. In today's world of wealth and technological advancement there is really no excuse for allowing children to starve.

Preventing it requires well directed development aid focused on the poorest and most vulnerable as well as humanitarian intervention. This latest research shows the remarkable difference our generosity has made. This is something we should all feel proud of and be proud to continue.

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