01/27/2012 04:00 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT

UNICEF issues appeal to aid starving kids, urges Canadians to contribute

OTTAWA - The perpetual problem of starving children in Africa is too big to ignore, but the head of UNICEF's Canadian branch frankly admits most people in this country will do just that.

David Morley was appealing for public donations as Friday's annual report from the UN children's agency decried the rising levels of starvation and malnutrition among children under the age of five in many of the world's troubled regions.

Morley echoed the message of the report, which is that without extra money, grinding persistent poverty will ultimately cause political instability, especially in East and West Africa.

But with Canadians facing cuts to public services in a looming federal budget as well as other economic challenges in their daily lives, Morley said his job is tough sell.

"It's not going to be an issue right now, no. It's going to be lower priority," Morley said in an interview.

Aid agencies, he said, will continue to swim against the tough economic tide.

"The group of us who are working internationally have to continue to try to show everybody in Canada how fortunate we are. This report is about this year. Our belief is a long-term one."

UNICEF is appealing for $1.28 billion in donations this year, down nine per cent from its funding requirement last year.

However a much bigger slice of its proposed spending is now swallowed battling persistent starvation among Third World kids.

Nutrition support for children has increased 47 per cent this year and now accounts for 30 per cent of UNICEF's total spending requirements, up from 19 per cent a year earlier.

"That nutrition component is up and that's really key," Morley said.

"When parents are unable to care for their children, when adolescents, particularly young men, don't see any possible future, that leads to political instability."

Morley said the crisis is especially acute in East and West Africa — the Horn of Africa countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia that were struck with famine last year, and the Sahel belt further west that remains vulnerable to the same affliction.

Extreme hunger and famine in the Horn of Africa last year affected 13 million people and killed tens of thousands of children.

In West Africa, food prices have gone up and harvests are weaker, said Morley.

As leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, gathered in Davos this week for the World Economic Forum, Morley wasn't hearing anything that might be interpreted as comfort to the planet's most vulnerable people.

"Clearly there is an economic crisis, but the humanitarian crisis for children is just too big to ignore. That's a real life or death crisis … the crisis of rising food prices, there's a huge, huge crisis," he said.

"We need to be talking about that — the people in Davos — because that's a true crisis."

The UNICEF report documents the response to last year's hunger woes. The statistics of misery include vitamin supplements, vaccinations and de-worming for 36 million children, and targeted nutritional support to 19 million women and children.

The Conservative government targeted aid to Third World women and children through its signature G8 initiative on child and maternal health, something Morley and other non-governmental actors are applauding.

Harper has stressed the need for transparency and mechanisms that ensure greater accountability in spending aimed at reducing mortality among kids under five and their mothers.

The government effort has been joined by many aid organizations, said Morley.

"I see some momentum growing," he said. "They (the government) seem to be willing to be held accountable."

A spokesman for Bev Oda, international co-operation minister, said Canada has continued to emphasize the importance of quality food aid and nutrition programs.

"Canada calls on all donor countries to focus on nutrition and join in the international effort to address malnutrition," said spokesman Justin Broekema in an email.

"That is why Canada is a lead supporter of the UN-SUN Movement (Surging Up Nutrition); that is why Canada led the G8 in adopting the Muskoka Initiative and included nutrition as part of its focused areas to improve the health of mothers and children."

One fact remains: Canada has frozen annual overseas foreign aid at $5 billion to 2015, as a deficit-fighting measure. That means Canada's aid spending will eventually dip below 0.3 per cent of GDP, well below the recommended UN target of 0.7 per cent that was first espoused by former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

Neither the current Conservative government nor the previous Liberal government has laid out a plan, unlike many other countries, to achieve the 0.7 per cent target.

"To me that's a responsible target for us to aim for as world citizens," said Morley. "The United Kingdom is still aiming for that and their economy is in worse shape than ours."