Coping Strategies

By Stanley A Stalla | Dec 31, 2015

Amman, Jordan —  

In the humanitarian world, one talks about “coping strategies.”  For example, if a refugee family can’t find, buy, or grow enough food to meet their minimum daily caloric, protein, carbohydrate, or other nutrition requirements, they look for ways to get by.  To cope.

Typically, they will choose less expensive foods, as their household income diminishes.  That may be okay, except often the less expensive foods are also less nutritious.  Less meat; more cassava.  Less vegetables; more maize.

Another coping strategy often used is for the adults to eat less so that the children can continue to have a normal diet.  After a while, though, the whole family may eat twice daily, and as things worsen, once.

Families sell off their assets as they become hungrier.  The family cow brings in some income and is a temporary remedy (though at this point the terms of trade usually bring less value for livestock than in good times).  Household items – tools, cooking utensils, a kerosene lamp – can be bartered for a few days’ nutrition.  But the fix is temporary, and the family sinks further into poverty when it gives up productive assets.

Coping strategies can become increasingly diabolical.  Children are taken out of school and sent to urban intersections to beg. That’s what is happening these days to many Syrian refugee families.  In Liberia, I heard dozens of stories of girls not only leaving school to work, but also having sex for a cup or two of rice.  They were so unbearably hungry.

For much of the world, America is indeed the Shining City on the Hill.  For many people, what makes our country glimmer and sparkle is the belief that we Americans can eat what we want, as much as we want, whenever and wherever we want.  Not quite true, but the belief is strong.

I’ll never forget the Burundian driver who would sometimes take me into the country’s interior – we called it “going up-country” – to visit project sites.  Bakry loved America, though he had never been there.  He sometimes would turn to me and tell me how great my country is.  “I love America,” he would remind me.  “In your country, people eat five times a day!”  He spoke with such enthusiasm that I found it difficult to contradict him.  Waxing even more enthusiastic one afternoon, Bakry said to me:  “You know what, Sir?  In America, when you buy a refrigerator, it’s already full of good things to eat!”

I did chuckle when he said that, and I often teased him afterwards about a country where the appliance stores sold fridges stocked with roast turkey and apple pie!

These days, a fair amount of my time is spent focusing on how to get food into a country where people literally are forced to run for their lives.  Many have exhausted their coping strategies and would die if it weren’t for humanitarian assistance, much donated by my countrymen and women on the other side of our planet.  Whether in Africa, the Middle East, or North America, the needs are there and not hard to see.

The other day, my dear wife wrote to say that she had spent the morning calling local food banks, to donate some of our family surplus.  She makes me proud, the way she shares without a second thought.  It also makes me wonder, maybe, if her generosity may just be my coping strategy for living in a world of inequities.

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