Rita Plotnikova in Budapest
“What unites 15 million southern Africans, 2 million Polish children, 530,000 Latvian pensioners and a thousand schoolchildren from the Lithuanian district of Kazlu Ruda?” asks the Lithuanian Red Cross. The answer: hunger and poverty.
The message that needs are great in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe was central to the activities of Red Cross Societies in the region on World Food Day on 16 October. According to the UN Development Programme, one Lithuanian in six lives in poverty. The Lithuanian Red Cross indicates that, among the country’s 3.5 million population, there are some 2,000 homeless people.
Behind the improving economic indices in most post-socialist countries, lies the grim reality of severe poverty. On World Food Day, ten Red Cross societies from the Baltic to the Adriatic came together to launch the third regional campaign to raise awareness of the plight of millions of poor and undernourished Europeans.
In Albania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro, Red Cross volunteers voiced their grave concern for those not protected by existing social welfare networks.
“The alarming figures on poverty and the wish to improve the situation has brought the local authorities, the cultural elite and the population together in this Red Cross campaign,” says Virginia Sereikaite, Lithuanian Red Cross Youth Director.
“Last year we joined the campaign and started to spread the word on poverty among the population for the first time. Children at schools learnt humanitarian ethics with the Red Cross. This year many more of us came out onto the streets and the message was already familiar to people. It provided us with a better foundation for fundraising this year,” she adds.
With strong visibility and media support, each Red Cross Society has found it possible not only to evoke concern among the population but also to raise funds, which can be spent on food and distributed to schools, social institutions, hospitals and soup kitchens.
Stunting and malnutrition have been found among 39 per cent of children in city suburbs in Albania. In the suburbs of the town of Korca, Red Cross volunteers started the day with the delivery of fresh bread donated by a local bakery to a poor Roma settlement.
By the end of the day 200 kg of flour, 200 kg of sugar, 700 kg of spaghetti, 50 kg of oil and other food was collected by the local Red Cross for further distribution to the elderly people and children with minimal daily food ratio. “People were warned of this campaign in advance,” said Plejada Gugashi from Albanian Red Cross. “They brought not only food, but also clothes to our collection points.”
The campaign assumed really national scale in Poland, where every sixth adult is unemployed. All Red Cross branches took part in the campaign, which began in Poland in 1999. This year, 800 restaurants agreed to raise funds for the Red Cross with envelopes and special messages for the diners.
“Share a sandwich with a friend” was the motto of the day in 1,000 Polish schools, while Polish actors gave their day’s salary to the Red Cross action as part of a “Culture against Hunger” initiative. About 20,000 people received free lunches from the Red Cross in Warsaw. The campaign will last until November.
“It’s time you join the campaign against undernourishment and poverty!” the Bulgarian Red Cross told the population this year, inviting them to give money for its food programmes for children and the elderly.
Some 21 per cent of the country’s 1.4 million children live in poverty, and the State estimates that 52 per cent of its Roma children are undernourished. On Hunger Day, the Red Cross provided hot lunches for 2,500 children and elderly people in 16 districts. For the funds raised the Bulgarian Red Cross aims to provide school lunches for undernourished children during a year.
Médecins sans Frontières estimates that in Bucharest alone, 5,000 people are living in the streets. This was also the number of hot meals distributed by the Romanian Red Cross mobile soup kitchens that were serve vulnerable people in seven Romanian cities.
Apart from distributing food parcels, Macedonian Red Cross volunteers sold stamps printed specially for the day with the aim to collect funds for more food parcels to support those who live in need.
“This is an amazing campaign,” says Tina Nemanic, the Federation regional Youth Coordinator for Central Europe. “It is not only a fundraising event that will make a contribution to the solution of the problem of poverty and malnutrition in the countries. It is also an important action that raises solidarity and makes people conscious of the existing problems that otherwise would pass unnoticed.”
“It is also an important exercise for the Red Cross workers and volunteers who make their voices heard on humanitarian issues and ideals. And that is also the Red Cross role – to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she says.
While World Food Day focuses on the grave food shortages in the developing world, in the ten Central European countries the Red Cross Societies are reminding people that poverty and hunger still exist in Central Europe and that, in the coming years, these vulnerabilities might worsen.
A United Nations report published in October says that 31.6 per cent of the world’s urban population lives in slums and 6.2 per cent of them live in Europe.
The average gross domestic product of the states due to join the European Union next year is just 40 per cent of current EU levels. Despite the traditional belief that Europe is safe, the Red Cross wishes to remind everyone that today these problems concern it as well.
With its regional action the Red Cross proves that while the countries might still need external money to support their further development in the market economy, effort should be taken to find internal resources in the societies where the gap continues to grow between the rich and the poor.