Q&A with Ettie Higgins, UNICEF South Sudan

Ettie Higgins with children in the protection site at the UNMISS base in Bentiu Photo: UNMISS/Tina Turyagyenda
Ettie Higgins with children in the protection site at the UNMISS base in Bentiu Photo: UNMISS/Tina Turyagyenda

Ettie, you’ve been in many emergency situations coordinating UNICEF’s aid effort, why is this crisis so urgent?

It’s a frightening statistic but there are over half a million children who have had to flee their homes in South Sudan. This is as a direct result of the conflict that broke out in December 2013 between government and rebel forces. The effect on children has been devastating. They’ve seen their homes destroyed, their family and neighbours killed. They can’t go to school and now they’re living as refugees. In addition to this a recent cholera outbreak has affected over 1,000 children and put a major strain on the already stretched resources. Unfortunately 29 children have died as a result.

Now the unrest and chaos is expected to get worse because a famine is imminent. Hundreds of thousands of people are already struggling to feed themselves at what is always a difficult time of year. But this year it is far worse because the violence has meant that farmers haven’t been able to plant their usual crops, resulting in a serious food shortage. We are already warning that the current crisis could become a full-scale emergency by the end of the year if action isn’t taken to get more food supplies to the children of South Sudan now.

More than half a million children have been displaced by violence in South Sudan. Many have been separated from their families. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Holt
More than half a million children have been displaced by violence in South Sudan. Many have been separated from their families. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Holt

How are children being affected by the crisis?

The latest fighting has forced over one million people to flee their homes in search of safety. Over half of these are children. 58% of those in UNICEF camps and 70% of refugees fleeing the country are under 18 years of age. This is a children’s crisis. Getting access to food, clean water and shelter is extremely challenging for families. Children in South Sudan are facing unprecedented suffering – with grave signs of worsening malnutrition and outbreaks of diseases like cholera.

Tragically, worse is yet to come. As the conflict continues and farmers miss the planting season, child malnutrition is expected to reach a scale that will have devastating consequences. If we cannot get more funds to provide food to malnourished children in South Sudan, tens of thousands of children will die. At the moment we only have supplies until the end of June. We need help to reach more children who need us.

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50,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition unless they receive urgent help. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Holt
50,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition unless they receive urgent help. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Holt

How is UNICEF responding to this crisis?

Our rapid response teams are in the field working tirelessly to reach pockets of children who have been completely cut off in remote areas. Sometimes the team stay for days to treat all the children that need their help. When they return they look like different people, often suffering from malaria and typhoid themselves. But they are delivering emergency food, registering children and screening for malnutrition. While they are doing this they also provide vaccines and immunise children against potentially life threatening diseases. They provide families with water purification tablets and hygiene kits so that they have clean water to drink and cook after the teams leave, helping to prevent against another cholera outbreak.. And they reunite children who may have been separated from their families during the conflict. They are getting aid through and are providing the basic necessities, which we take for granted at home in Ireland but can be the difference between life and death here in South Sudan.

What are the main challenges facing our teams?

At the moment we only have supplies until the end of June. We desperately need to continue these programmes and this work. If we don’t reach these children I don’t know who else will. Our emergency response teams can reach these children who need them. We have the know-how to help children, we just need the funds to do it.

Why is UNICEF best placed to respond to this crisis?

I have been involved in many emergency situations with UNICEF and I have seen how effective our donors’ support can be in even the most challenging environments. We’ve been working in South Sudan since 1989 and have long-established partners and networks on the ground. This means that we can get help effectively and rapidly to those children who need it most.

Nyandeng, 8 years old, from Jonglei, listens to Ettie address families as part of celebrations for the Day of the African Child in the UN Protection of Civilian site in Juba. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Campeanu
Nyandeng, 8 years old, from Jonglei, listens to Ettie address families as part of celebrations for the Day of the African Child in the UN Protection of Civilian site in Juba. Photo: UNICEF, 2014, Campeanu

Can people reading this make a difference?

I think that a crisis of this scale can be overwhelming for our donors and hard for them to see how they can make a difference. All I can say is that in all of my years of working for UNICEF in emergency situations, one thing shines through and that is the amazing power of the kindness of people. I have seen for myself, time and time again, how a child’s life has been saved because someone took the time and trouble to help.

How can people help?

We urgently need donations to help buy the emergency food and equipment needed to help save children’s lives. We need three essentials to bring malnourished children back to health: baby sling weighing scales to identify the children most at risk; vitamin-enriched milk-based powder to get them out of immediate danger; and high energy nourishing food to build up their strength over the days and weeks that follow.

The baby sling weighing scale is a simple yet essential piece of equipment used to measure the weight of babies and infants. One of the best ways to make sure malnutrition is diagnosed early in children is to monitor their weight. The earlier the diagnosis, the better chance the child has of survival.

The milk-based powder formula of the milk powder we use is enriched with vitamins and minerals, which help boost the chances of a malnourished child getting better. A child is fed the milk eight times daily, to help their little body recover from the shock of malnutrition and condition it to digest food. It is used in emergency feeding centres, refugee camps and hospitals.

Then we use a high-energy food that is a nourishing peanut-based paste that comes in a ready-to-use sachet, meaning it can work in any situation and would be life-saving for the children of South Sudan. Just three sachets a day are all it takes to help a malnourished child gain up to two pounds in a single week.

Do you have a message for people at home?

Our supporters in Ireland are amazing. I have no other word for them because their gifts achieve something really special: they could help save children’s lives. It’s as simple and amazing as that. I am very aware that we are only able to help children because of people like them. I’d like to sincerely thank them for that.

Donate now to UNICEF’s South Sudan Children’s Appeal