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Remembering the Humanity Behind the Numbers

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There comes a point in every humanitarian crisis when the world starts to lament the transformation of tragedies into mere numbers. Every day we are inundated with statistics portraying the direness of situations worldwide. In the past weeks these figures have once again focused on Syria, which just passed its third anniversary of the current crisis:

146,000: estimated number killed so far in the conflict.

2.51 million: registered refugees with UNHCR; with an additional 50,000 awaiting registration.

1.26 million: number of these refugees who are children, according to UNICEF.

9 million: number of Syrians in need humanitarian assistance, a third of who are in obstructed, hard-to reach regions.

5.5 million: number of Syrian children in need currently due to the crisis.

There is an oft-used saying: "a billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and pretty soon we're talking about real money." Unfortunately, this old quip does not necessarily hold true for humanitarian statistics. Sadly, the opposite often proves to be the case. It seems that more we are exposed to stories of humanitarian disasters such as Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Pakistan and elsewhere, the more we seem to become jaded by the numbers presented.

A case in point. The BBC recently reported a wave of car bomb attacks that killed nearly 50 people in Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Hilla, one day after an explosion killed more than 20 in Baghdad. January witnessed more than 1,000 deaths due to sectarian violence in the country, and 2013 was the deadliest year since this violence peaked in 2008. Iraq is still in a dire situation, but news coming out of the country is often eclipsed by more recent tragedies, with more numbers.

This is not an article intended to place blame on society for failing to have a heart. On the contrary, there are countless organizations providing life-saving assistance to those in need, without want of praise or decoration. However, this is an article critical of our failure to make the numbers presented to us relevant to everyone they need to be relevant to.

If you have ever seen me give a talk on my own experiences dealing with international hunger, you may have heard me talk about what I witnessed in Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980's. As a US Congressman, I was touring one of the many refugee camps in the country at the time. While I was prepared to see suffering, I was not prepared to watch the light in a child's eye disappear as she died in front of me. And absolutely nothing could have prepared me to witness this over and over again more than a dozen times while I was at the camp. This image continues to haunt me, and I dedicated myself to helping to create a world where the preventable ill of hunger is eliminated. I had seen the numbers become relevant by witnessing the humanity behind them.

So how do we portray that kind of relevancy to those who do not have the will or means to witness them firsthand? I wish I were writing this because I had an answer -- I do not -- but I believe we are on the right path. In the anti-hunger community, the Alliance to End Hunger is bringing together many of the most committed minds through its membership to talk about "what we mean when we talk about hunger." This means taking the conversation beyond sheer numbers and advertisements of impoverished children with bloated bellies. It means building genuine and sustained public and political will to end hunger everywhere. On this third anniversary of the devastating conflict in Syria, we need to reflect not only on the tragedy over there, but our own message to end it over here.