Anne Lynam Goddard comforts a malnourished baby at an ANDP therapeutic feeding center.
The baby’s cries, rusty rather than robust, pulled ChildFund President and CEO Anne Lynam Goddard down to the blanket where he sat propped against his mother’s leg. Placing her hand on his tiny chest, touching the papery skin stretched over his delicate ribcage, she spoke in gentle tones until he quieted. Unable to lift his head, the baby gazed up at her with great, dark eyes sunken in a small face that was all angles and planes with none of the soft roundness a 7- or 8-month-old should have.
Goddard was on a February visit to ChildFund’s programs in Liberia, where the organization has worked since soon after the 2003 signing of the peace treaty that ended 13 years of civil war. Her third day there had brought her to the Voice of America (VOA) camp for Sierra Leonean refugees, to visit a therapeutic feeding center run by the Aid for the Needy Development Program (ANDP), a local nonprofit that has several inpatient and outpatient feeding facilities throughout Liberia. ChildFund has partnered with ANDP to support the VOA center since August 2010.
“I haven’t seen that kind of malnutrition in a long time,” says Goddard, her voice grave. “A long time.”
Some disasters happen in a moment, shaking buildings loose from their foundations or washing away entire towns. And some disasters unfold slowly, through decades of political unrest followed by protracted wars — across generations. That’s the situation from which Liberia is recovering while also contending with refugees who have flowed in from neighboring countries in conflict.
Although Goddard found much progress to celebrate, her visit with the babies and mothers being treated at the ANDP center reminded her afresh of how poverty’s effects tend to fall hardest on the most vulnerable members of any population: the children.
In Liberia, 41.8 percent of children younger than 5 are stunted, according to a 2010 report from the U.N.’s World Food Programme. Stunting, a manifestation of chronic malnutrition, means not only delayed growth but also a weakened immune system, poorer outcomes and possible death from normal childhood diseases, reduced IQ and even irreversible brain damage. When nearly 42 percent of tomorrow’s adults have the condition, tomorrow looks less bright.
The most talked-about sources of malnutrition in developing countries seem straightforward — too little food, inadequate clean water and sanitation, unemployment, lack of education. The situation in Liberia highlights another cause: teenage mothers, who are ill-equipped to care for their children. The ANDP center treats many of them.
Liberia has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the world, with 38 percent of girls already mothers or pregnant by age 18. What’s more, 15 percent of 15- to 19-year-old women in Liberia are undernourished, which compromises a child’s health even before birth.
Goddard with a teenage mother and her baby at an ANDP center. The document in the foreground notes the child's history and tracks weight, medication and feeding throughout treatment.
Years of war have shredded Liberia’s social fabric, leaving adults broken from the years of turmoil and young people without role models. Educational and employment opportunities are scarce. Youth become vulnerable to making bad choices, or even to rape. Too often, nature takes its course, and babies are born.
The girls know nothing of how to be mothers, and the boys can’t begin to be fathers. Their own parents are unable to pass along any knowledge that will help them be parents themselves. Girls feed their babies bowls and bowls of rice and wonder why they don’t grow.
At the ANDP center, Goddard saw firsthand ANDP’s highly practical response to malnutrition — working with mothers and helping them with feeding practices, nutrition education and psychosocial support to help repair the mother-child bond. Exclusive breastfeeding is promoted for babies’ first months, to dovetail with the carefully timed introduction of nutrient-dense foods, which the mothers are taught to prepare.
ChildFund provides the facility at VOA with both material and financial support, including a $20,000 sum that Goddard presented to ANDP Executive Director William Dakel during her visit.
Still, as Goddard says, “The needs of Liberian children remain vast.” Although ChildFund cannot offer sponsorships for Liberia’s still-transient population, we are there to help this country heal, starting with the youngest and most vulnerable.
“There is a feeling of hope,” says Goddard. “It’s a fragile sense of hope, but it’s palpable.”