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Post-Conflict Ivory Coast: An Interview with Annie Bodmer-Roy of Save the Children

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Four months have passed since the conflict in the Ivory Coast came to an end following a disputed election. But the wounds run very deep in the West African nation.

There were thousands displaced by the fighting between supporters of President Alassane Ouattara and those of ex-President Laurent Gbagbo. Many of the refugees fear returning home. The conflict caused a loss of livelihoods, shelter, medical care and other basic services.

The Ivory Coast needs peace and reconciliation, as well as unity against the hunger and disease still attacking the population. Annie Bodmer-Roy of Save the Children recently talked about how the charity is taking action to help Ivory Coast recover from the violence.

What kinds of programs is Save the Children running in the Ivory Coast?

The conflict that hit the Ivory Coast following disputed elections in November 2010 had a huge impact on the population. As in conflict around the world, children have been hit the hardest. Pre-existing high levels of poverty even before the conflict – 49% of the population was living under the poverty line – were suddenly combined with large-scale loss of income as hundreds of thousands of families were forced to flee their homes for safety. This has meant that thousands of parents no longer have enough money to ensure enough food for their children. Widespread violence and looting also limited families’ access to health care and children’s access to schools as health workers and teachers fled the areas of fighting, hospitals were looted, and schools used as temporary camps for those families who had fled their homes.

In response to the increased needs of children and their families, Save the Children launched a large-scale emergency program, appealing for funds to help meet the immediate needs of children affected by the conflict. We’re currently operating across eight offices and are running seven different programs, including health; nutrition; food security and livelihoods; education; child protection; shelter; and water, sanitation and hygiene. We’re also running a civil society initiative where we provide small cash grants to local NGOs and community-based organisations for them to implement projects in their communities, enabling a local response to needs identified within the community as being the most pressing for families.

As so many families lost their means to an income, one initiative Save the Children has started running is a cash transfer programme, where the families most affected by the conflict are identified by our staff, and are provided with ID cards that allow them to take out money at specific banks we’ve partnered with throughout the country. In this way, families who have been displaced, families on their way back home, or those who have already returned, can access this cash when they are on the move and once they arrive, providing a buffer that will help them get through the day-to-day as they start building back their lives. The cash provided will enable families to buy food at local markets, ensuring their children will begin getting the nutritious food they need, while at the same time improving livelihoods for local farmers and vendors. So far we’ve helped close to 2,000 families through this project – and we’re scaling up in the coming weeks to provide this assistance to an additional 8,000 families.

What is the level of malnutrition among the children?

Even before the conflict, already one in three children under five years old in Côte d’Ivoire was suffering from chronic malnutrition. One in five children under five was considered underweight. With the outbreak of conflict and massive population movement, it has been difficult to gather accurate and up-to-date information on malnutrition rates; however Save the Children and other agencies working on malnutrition have observed worrying signs of increases in malnutrition, including some areas where severe acute malnutrition has increased in a matter of weeks. Save the Children has recently started up malnutrition screening and treatment for children under five in western Ivory Coast, where some of the worst of the fighting and looting took place during the conflict.

Ten-month-old Sara has been found to be malnourished, and will receive treatment to make her strong and healthy again. Even before the conflict, already one in three children under five years old in Côte d’Ivoire was suffering from chronic malnutrition (Photo: Annie Bodmer-Roy/Save the Children)

Are there any basic health services available to children?

One of the immediate results of the conflict was the breakdown in health services as hospitals and health centres closed in many areas due to the fighting, with health workers fleeing the areas hit by violence and the centres and hospitals themselves being looted and pillaged. Medicines and medical equipment were stolen, which meant that even once health workers began returning and hospitals began to re-open, patients were unable to receive the treatment they needed.

Another major concern has been health user fees – because so many families lost their means to an income, they could no longer afford medical care and treatment. As a result of advocacy by aid agencies like Save the Children however, the Ivorian government agreed to drop health user fees, passing a decree enabling families to access free health care throughout the country.

Today, health centres are largely open and running with the support of agencies like Save the Children, who ensure regular provision of medical supplies and essential medicines, as well as support in rehabilitating infrastructures destroyed during the conflict. For areas where there are no functioning health centres or hospitals running, Save the Children and other agencies have been running mobile outreach clinics, travelling to remote villages and towns to ensure that the health needs of children and their families’ are being addressed and proper care and treatment is provided.

What has been the psychological impact of the conflict?

Children have been exposed to enormous levels of violence and many have been separated from their families when they had to flee their homes. Save the Children’s teams have spoken to children who have fled violence in the west of the country who have seen their houses burnt down and family members killed. Even today, four months after the end of the fighting and over eight months since the elections, our teams are identifying children who had to leave relatives behind when they fled – and still do not know whether their family members are alive or dead. Some of the older children have lived through the 2002 conflict and have now been exposed to heavy violence in their lives for a second time – while it is clear that this has an immediate and profound impact on children, Save the Children is also concerned about the longer term psychological impact on children.

In the past weeks, our teams have spoken to children who consider the war to still be going on – despite the end of fighting and the resolution of the political crisis. We’ve also been to villages in the West where children no longer play in the same areas they used to go play in, as they no longer feel safe there. Save the Children is running regular play activities for children in Abidjan and in the West, areas hardest hit by the conflict. Through the spaces set up for these activities, Save the Children is providing an opportunity for children to play together in a safe area, getting a chance to be children again and regain a sense of normalcy to help them recover from the difficulties they’ve faced in the past months. The spaces also give children the chance to speak to an adult they can trust, trained by Save the Children to help children talk through their problems and ensure children have someone who will listen.

How can someone help Save the Children in the Ivory Coast?

Although the political crisis sparked by last year’s elections has now been resolved, immediate needs remain for hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are still displaced from their homes even today. Save the Children is running an emergency response in the Ivory Coast to make sure that children are able to access enough nutritious food to stay healthy and strong; medical care and treatment; and clean drinking water. We’re also working closely with other agencies and the government so that children are well-protected against violence, abuse and exploitation, also making sure that children can get back into school. As families begin to return home, we are looking at transitioning some of our programmes into longer-term work to ensure that even once the immediate crisis has passed, children and their families are not forgotten, and continue to receive the assistance they need to build their lives back.

Someone who wanted to help Save the Children in the Ivory Coast can keep up to date on what we’re doing by signing up to Save the Children’s email updates, sent out regularly to supporters, providing information on what we’re doing on the ground. You can also check out our webpage on the Ivory Coast at our website and spread the word among your friends and family about what we’re doing to help children recover from the conflict. You can also donate here to help us continue our work and make sure we have the funding we need to continue to meet the needs of children and their families in the Ivory Coast.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.