Time to act over looming food crisis in Africa's Sahel


THE WIDELY documented signs of a looming food security crisis in the Sahel region of Africa, where acute food shortages threaten some 12 million people, are a cause of increasing alarm.

A series of factors including rising food prices, migration from insecurity in Libya, failed harvests and the impact of climate change on the Sahara desert are having an impact.

The international community has a clear opportunity to act early to avert a crisis on the scale recently experienced in east Africa. If the global community had acted faster in the earlier half of last year, there is widespread agreement that a famine could have been prevented in Somalia. Instead, repeated calls by aid agencies of a looming malnutrition crisis were largely ignored by international donors, and millions suffered unnecessarily.

Cyclical crises in the Sahel are, unfortunately, nothing new. Previous food security crises have occurred in 2005, 2008 and most recently in 2010. Some of the lessons of the past led to the establishment of early warning systems, similar to those that exist in east Africa. These systems monitor factors such as food price rises, rainfall levels, pest plagues, cereal production, availability of food staples in the region and national food reserves.

The information coming out of those systems has already signalled the rapid deterioration of an extremely fragile situation. Unless we act upon that information now, there will be a repeat of the crises of previous years, with great loss of life and increased levels of poverty.

According to the former United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, it would have cost $1 per day per child to prevent malnutrition if international donors had launched an early response to the 2005 Niger food crisis. But that large-scale early response never occurred, and by July 2005, it cost $80 per day per child to provide emergency medical treatment for severe malnutrition. Prevention is not just better than cure, but significantly cheaper as well.

The recent announcement by the EU commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Civil Response, Kristalina Georgieva, to scale up funding across the Sahel to mount an early response represents an important milestone. Commissioner Georgieva will be in Dublin on Monday to meet the Irish Government and Irish NGOs and her message that the EU is committed to preventing the escalation of a new crisis in the Sahel is welcomed.

What we need now is the commitment by the broader international community that it will follow the EU’s willingness also to fund longer-term interventions. After a recent visit to the region, the commissioner said that a conservative estimate of the needs over the next six months stood at €500 million. So far, an estimated €115 million of that has been pledged by the EU, US, UN, UK and France. There is an urgent need to fill the gap.

In the short term, increased support must be given to the health sector to improve early diagnosis and treatment of malnutrition and, in the longer term, aid agencies have to insist on programmes that address its root causes. One million children are reported to be facing extreme risks during the next hunger period from June to October.

For a sustainable solution to malnutrition prevention, programmes must focus on livelihoods assistance, sustainable food production, improved childcare practices, social protection, health, water, hygiene and sanitation. We also need to protect the livelihoods and assets of the most vulnerable with a more diversified approach that is less reliant on food aid. We can do this by making greater use of cash transfers and food vouchers. These initiatives help ensure that when food is available in the markets, poor people can get it.

In 2010, and again in 2011, Concern implemented a multipronged nutrition and health programme to reduce acute malnutrition, morbidity and mortality among children under five in parallel with seeds and tools distributions and cash transfers. Results from our 2010 intervention, which reached more than 650,000 people, revealed that “global acute malnutrition” rates in Tahoua District, one of the country’s worst affected areas where we responded, were at 11.7 per cent – well below the emergency threshold of 15 per cent. Not only that, but 80 per cent of the villages rated as being at risk of extreme food shortages in 2009, had above average harvests in 2010.

One of the dilemmas facing aid agencies seeking to cope with cyclical crises, such as the one unfolding in the Sahel, is that we have been restricted from mounting the sort of large-scale, multisector development programmes required – with funding streams that typically run out after a year or 18 months. Unless multisector interventions are implemented as part of a wider approach, we will continue to struggle with isolated stories of success. The challenge for aid agencies now is to secure commitments across the international community that allow for long-term investments in development programming as a matter of routine, and not just when 12 million people face imminent risk.

Paul O’Brien is Overseas Director, Concern Worldwide