Sitan's Race Against Hunger

23/07/2012 16:08 BST | Updated 22/09/2012 10:12 BST

Eight-year-old Sitan was lying on a rattan mat outside her family's house shading herself from the baking midday sun. Years of malnutrition had left this eight-year-old looking more like a little girl of four. Worse, she could barely move and was virtually silent. She, like many millions of children across the developing world, has a condition called stunting. In layman's terms this means she didn't get enough nutritious food as young child and is now physically and possibly mentally less developed than she should be.

Already vulnerable and hungry it didn't take much to tip her over the edge. Failed rains and increased food prices have left her family struggling to survive. They have literally run out of food. Everyday they eat a few bowls of toe - corn meal - with no extra nutrition from vegetables or meat. As a result, Sitan has become weaker and weaker. By the time I met her a few days ago she was severely malnourished. Her skin was peeling off her painfully thin legs, her tummy was swollen and she looked listless and ill. Already terribly weak , she then picked up rotavirus diarrhoea, making her condition worse still. She was close to death.

The story of Sitan is the story of a million children across the Sahel who, without our urgent help, will face starvation and death. We will save Sitan's life and our dedicated frontline staff will save hundreds of thousands of other children, with expert care and support.

But we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis unless we deal with the underlying causes of hunger. Millions of children around the world live one step away from starvation. Already malnourished, it only takes a small shock to tip them into a much more serious crisis. Failed rains, higher food prices or political instability could push a poor family into a downward spiral. In Mali some families face all three.

The bigger picture of child survival and child well-being is much more hopeful.

At Save the Children, we recently launched our annual Child Development Index, which shows we have made dramatic progress in recent years in cutting the number of children dying from preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia and getting more children into school. In general, the report shows that conditions for children have improved in 90% of the world's countries since the late 1990's. But the same report shows that the one area we have made less progress on, and in recent years have even gone backwards, is hunger.

So what should we do? More food alone is not necessarily the answer.

In Niger in 2010, a year of crisis, 320,000 children had severe malnutrition. The next year, a bumper harvest only reduced this number by 13,000. Why? Mainly because food crises occur not only when food stocks are low, but when food prices are high. Food may be available - but poor families just can't afford it.

We need a package of measures to tackle this. We need to provide more help to small farmers to grow more food, but just as importantly , we need to ensure that families have the ability to grow or buy the right kinds of food with enough minerals and nutrients to help growing families develop. We also need to have more ambitious social protection programmes to help insulate poor families in bad years. This can be as simple as giving them cash to buy nutritious food so their children don't become severely malnourished. This helps poor families and children and boosts the local economy.

We need more programmes to help mothers learn about which nutritious foods work best and to promote breast feeding. Early action by governments and donors to prevent emergencies becoming full blown disasters will be also critical. This means building sophisticated early warning systems and allowing charities the flexibility to respond when necessary and not wait for international outcry of a disaster - which usually comes when the problem is already chronic.

But bigger than all of those, there must be the political ambition - and a practical plan - to change the way the international community works to help communities build their resilience and end these everyday emergencies.

Tackling child hunger is not impossible. We can defeat this stubborn scourge of our time. But we will only succeed by addressing the immediate crises and the underlying causes together. The upcoming Olympic hunger summit is a chance to do just this. To begin the biggest push in history on hunger. To make sure Sitan and millions more children like her don't face a blighted future.

I hope you will join our race against hunger by calling on David Cameron and other leaders to make this Summit the start of a push through to 2013 to make hunger history. It sounds impossible but, as I saw in Mali, with the proper will and the right ideas we can succeed. Join us.