Avoiding another dangerous delay in the Sahel

Here we are in a new year, facing another drought, and a new report of a looming food crisis is released.  As aid agencies, we’re beginning to sound like a broken record – last August I warned about a potential food crisis in Niger this year with reports of insufficient rain for pastoralists.  But thankfully, this time our messages are being heard and acted upon.  Mindsets and behaviour in the aid world and international community are shifting.

This approaching food crisis is the third one in the Sahel region of West Africa that I’ve worked on in the past 7 years.   But Billou Moctar, the Mayor of Abalak in Niger, has lived through them all, compared to only once a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now, resilient herders in Abalak have been beaten down by seeing two thirds of their precious animals starve to death or selling them to buy food during a food crisis in 2010.  With little time to recover, they’ve been hit recently by high food prices, which is a strain on their reduced income due to returnees from Libya.  Animal fodder is almost double the price of last year.  They’re weakened physically as they don’t have enough milk and a third of herders are moderately or severely malnourished.  They will stay beaten down unless aid is released to get them back on their feet to fight what could be worse to come.

In Chad, harvests only produced half of what they did in 2010.  Levourne Passiri, Tearfund’s Country Representative, says “People need to retain their strength and assets so that they can buy and plant seeds in May and June.  But as early as February, people will start to run out of reserves and won’t be able to afford to buy food on the market.”  Herders are selling their goats and sheep, some women are selling salt.  Malnutrition rates are increasing and are now above ten per cent.

Time and time again, we face a humanitarian conundrum and have to balance meeting people’s needs immediately with the fact that no one wants to be accused of crying wolf too early.  A cautious attitude is adopted until hard data can justify the release of humanitarian funding.  But it can take months for official surveys to be done in the field and to be approved by the government.

But this time, there are promising signs of early action.  Last October, the President of Niger appealed to the international community to come to his country’s assistance, announcing a high cereal deficit.    Whereas, in 2005 no one dared mention the word famine to the government and outspoken aid agencies were thrown out of the country.  Moreover, British NGOs have coordinated regularly since the 2005 food crisis as part of the Sahel Working Group.  Tearfund publicly discussed the lessons learnt from the 2005 and 2010 food crises as a warning to prevent another one in 2012, on a panel at an ODI seminar with DFID and ECHO who committed to take early action.

In December the government of Chad declared a crisis very early on compared to 2010 and is developing a response plan, after talking to NGOs about the situation on the ground.  The UN emergency fund (CERF) provided $6m to reduce food insecurity and acute malnutrition among children under 5 inChad.

DFID is developing a resilience strategy for the Sahel, France swiftly gave 10m Euros and the EU has doubled humanitarian aid to 95 million Euros.

The UN appealed, advising that it would cost $40-$50 to feed a child for a month, compared to waiting until the child is acutely malnourished and requires 2 months treatment of $400.

December and January also saw media coverage just a few months after the harvest results, warning that people could run out of food in March.  In 2010 there was hardly any British media attention even in July at the peak of the food crisis when it was too late to save many lives and livelihoods.

Early preventative action is the first step but we can’t expect humanitarian aid year after year to solve chronic hunger.  Only long term development for sustainable livelihoods and tackling the underlying inequality and unjust policies will prevent us from seeing this scenario again and again.

Jo Khinmaung is Tearfund’s Food Security Policy Adviser. Follow her on www.twitter.com/JKfoodie

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