'A 7-Year-Old Who Weighs 28 Lbs., a 6-Year-Old Who Can No Longer Eat': Inside a Starving Country and Efforts to Save It

The Central African Republic has been called "the world's least developed country" — for the first time in five years, an American TV team went inside

“I think all good investigations begin with a question,” NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden tells PEOPLE, “And our question was: Where is the worst place in the world to be a child right now? Where is the most dangerous? Where is the most peril?”

McFadden is describing the behind-the-scenes process for her recent reporting trip to the Central African Republican, where she and a small crew spent about five days exploring a “brewing geopolitical crisis” that has largely been out of the spotlight.

That’s in part due to the threats faced by journalists and aid workers in the CAR, where they are particular targets, says McFadden, the network’s senior legal and investigative reporter.

According to NBC this is the first time an American TV team has been able to report inside the country in five years. The trip required months of preparation and security planning. McFadden says her they traveled with armed United Nations peacekeepers and rode in cars with bulletproof windows, among other measures.

In 2017 the New York Times described the CAR as “the world’s least developed country.”

Though it sits atop rich natural resources of diamonds, gold and uranium, it has been plagued by sectarian violence along ethnic and religious lines. McFadden says the central government controls less than a fifth of the country’s land. Some 14 other groups vie for the remainder — often violently.

A recent peace agreement between these groups reportedly required the formation of a new, “inclusive” government. But that peace deal, signed last month, has been complicated by criticism least one of its signatories who decried “bad faith, amateurism and incompetence.”

What the NBC team said they found inside the country was startling: “Over a million and a half children are literally on the brink of starvation,” McFadden says. In an exclusive preview from her reports (above), McFadden travels with UNICEF to the country’s only children’s hospital.

McFadden tells PEOPLE the work being done by local groups was no less heartening than the hardships they face were cruel.

“I was prepared for the pain [of reporting in the CAR],” she says. “I was prepared as one can be to see children who were struggling for every breath to meet children — a 7-year-old who weighs 28 lbs., a 6-year-old who can no longer eat, these kinds of horribly painful human problems.”

But, McFadden continues, “I was surprised and delighted to see that this little sort of a power bar called Plumpy’nut was able to bring these kids back from the brink.”

“You’re really prepared for the pain but not for the joy,” McFadden says. “The children playing games in the most desperate of circumstances, the helpers, the people who — I love the whole thing from Mr. Rogers: ‘Look for the helpers.’ You find the people who themselves have suffered so much, have lost so much, and yet there they are organizing classrooms and children sitting on the edge of their seats, thirsty for knowledge.”

McFadden also points to the efforts of a local branch of the Scouts — known here as the Boy Scouts of America — who in the CAR, because “the central government is so weak …. have stepped in as sort of the ears and legs and heart.”

“They’re right in the thick of it,” McFadden says of the 12,000 members, both men and women, in their teens to mid-twenties.

“They do what the government can’t or won’t do,” she says, such as going into local communities to provide information and sooth distrust of international workers during disease outbreaks.

Based on its reporting, NBC is planning to air a series of segments starting Wednesday morning on the Today show, followed by an NBC Nightly News story and digital articles.

Part of those efforts will include information for how viewers can contribute aid themselves, including to “the Plumpy’nut movement,” McFadden says.

“I know American are generous and I hope many of them are moved,” she says. “And, yes, there are all kinds of problems in this country and, yes, people only have so much. But for the price of a cup of coffee you can keep a kid alive for another day.”

The NBC reports on the Central African Republic crisis begin Wednesday morning on the Today show (which starts airing at 7 a.m. ET) and continue Wednesday night on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (which starts at 6:30 p.m. ET).

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