When Peter Oussoren saw an episode of Al Jazeera’s Start Here programme about extreme hunger and drought in Madagascar, he could not help but wonder why he had not known about the problem.
So the teacher at King’s Christian Collegiate, a high school in Oakville, Ontario, about 40km (25 miles) west of Toronto, decided to bring it up in one of his Grade 9 classes – and ask the students if they wanted to do something about it.
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“We wanted to be able to respond to things happening around the world,” Oussoren told Al Jazeera, explaining that they decided to launch a fundraiser to try to help respond to the crisis in the East African island nation.
“My class started this, and we all thought with two classes we could raise $1,000,” he said.
But eight Grade 9 classes – about 160 students – eventually joined the effort, raising about 2,500 Canadian dollars ($1,970) for the Canada Foodgrains Bank, a group that supports food initiatives around the world, including emergency food assistance in southern Madagascar.
Late last year, the Canadian government announced it was providing a 75 million Canadian dollars ($59m) grant over three years to the Canada Foodgrains Bank, which said the funds would be used to fund emergency response projects.
“Students were willing to give and they wanted to meet their goal,” Oussoren said, about the school fundraiser, adding that he often uses Start Here episodes in his geography and world issues courses.
The United Nations warned in September last year that Madagascar faced extreme food shortage after years of drought, with more than 1.1 million people requiring urgent food and nutritional assistance.
A spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP), Shelley Thakral, told Al Jazeera at the time that the drought was having a catastrophic effect on people.
“These are people who live off the land, survive off the land, and have been displaced by drought. They’ve lost their livelihood, they’ve had to sell everything,” Thakral said. “The situation has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were looking for seasonal labour and tourism, there has [sic] not been any tourists coming into the country for the last 18 months.”
— WFP Madagascar – PAM (@PamMadagascar) July 26, 2021
The WFP said a month later that more than one million people in southern Madagascar faced what “could become the first famine caused by climate change”.
In the Start Here episode that inspired the fundraiser in Canada, host Sandra Gathmann explained further: “In parts of the country, they’re eating locusts, leaves, clay or even bits of shoe leather just to survive.”
In early November, the WFP said “pockets of famine” had been reported in southern Madagascar.
A study (PDF) published a month later by World Weather Attribution found that climate change “did not play a statistically significant role in the reduced rainfall” that contributed to the crisis. But researchers said the situation still constituted a “warning sign” for the future.
“Food insecurity in Madagascar is not just driven by meteorological drought, but also a host of factors such as demographics, poverty, infrastructure, policy and non-climate shocks and stresses that modify the likelihood of a household becoming food insecure,” they found.
Back at King’s Christian Collegiate in Canada, Oussoren said the students’ fundraiser impressed upon them the importance of caring for people – whether that be in their community or elsewhere in the world.
“A big theme in Grade 9 every year is we care for one another … but we also want to extend that outside of our walls – so locally and globally,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It’s part of a bigger theme of how do we care for one another … That includes people that we may not know and people on the other side of the world.”