A high level collection of EC and member states officials, UN big cheeses and West African leaders are meeting in Brussels today to discuss the unfolding crisis in the Sahel, where a disaster is looming. Some communities already find themselves in crisis, others see disaster on the horizon as an early lean season approaches and the annual ‘hunger gap’ lengthens. Overall, 18.4 million people are vulnerable to the food crisis, 6 million of whom are ‘severely food insecure’ – in a serious state, but falling short of outright famine (see table for March 2012 figures).
The meeting will focus on the serious funding gap. Only about half the estimated $1.6bn has been committed so far, despite the alarm bell having been rung months ago. The meeting will also launch a ‘partnership for resilience’, which is what I want to focus on here.
It is this focus on resilience, systems and long-term solutions that stands out when reading Oxfam’s most recent briefing on the Sahel crisis and comparing it to our ‘Dangerous Delay’ analysis on the flawed response to the crisis on the other side of the continent, in East Africa. Restrictions on migration and trade, high food prices, a failure to invest in small-holder agriculture and safety nets, and the conflict in Mali and even the international arms trade are significant contributory factors, alongside the failure of the rains.
The Sahel briefing focuses on the need not just to find emergency money, but to treat crises as long-term and cyclical, rather than one-off disasters (300,000 children in the region die of malnutrition, even in a ‘good’ year). The paper’s recommendations for building resilience to such cycles are worth quoting in full:
“Firstly, with food often available on the market but inaccessible due to high prices, developing food reserves in vulnerable regions will be critical not only in enhancing access to affordable stocks in order to rapidly respond to future crises, but also to help governments prevent and manage food price volatility. ECOWAS recently committed to defining a regulatory framework for the development of a regional system of food reserves, a process that should be supported by donors, including at the G20 meeting in June 2012.
Secondly, national policies and programmes promoting social protection measures and social safety nets are needed for the most vulnerable people and communities, especially children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and the elderly. This will increase the long-term resilience of households, improve the nutrition of children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and lessen the impact of the future droughts. The meeting of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome in October 2012 provides a key opportunity to promote and support these investments.
Thirdly, a change is needed to the system of producing and consuming food, moving away from a focus on investing in a limited range of export crops and towards investment in small-scale producers who can increase local food production and break the dependency on fragile and expensive international markets. This should include allocating at least 10 per cent of national budgets to agriculture, as promised in the 2003 African Union Maputo Declaration, but greater attention should also be given to ensure this assistance is targeted to small-scale farmers, particularly women.”
The response to date has in some important ways been better than in previous such crises: the early warning systems functioned relatively well; governments in the region raised the alarm quickly; and some donors mobilised funds more quickly than in the past. Regional governments, Niger in particular, are showing more leadership, as is the regional body, ECOWAS. But such leadership remains largely absent in some of the region’s more fragile, conflict-ridden states. There are some good policies in place, such as an ECOWAS charter for preventing food crises, but implementation is another issue. There is still a long way to go – the cup is perhaps a quarter full.
Despite the funding shortfall, donors are also doing better, with ECHO, the European Union’s humanitarian body, the star of the show in terms of acting early, before the horrifying footage hits the TV screens.
Looking ahead, the peak of the crisis is expected in July/August, with three potential complicating factors:
- A possible African Union or ECOWAS military intervention in Northern Mali to deal with armed groups there (shades of Somalia, in terms of security/anti-terrorism playing havoc with the humanitarian response)
- Predictions of lower than average rainfall (due from now to end August) in Western Sahel, which could tip Western Mali and Senegal into protracted crisis instead of recovery
- A locust epidemic, mainly in Niger and Mali, could be devastating, but is hard to deal with because of restricted access to Mali and Libya.
Such a long term shift in thinking on humanitarian response is vital, but will be of little comfort to the 18 million hungry people in West Africa – they will be looking to the meeting in Brussels today to come up with cash as well as policies. Click on Oxfam’s Sahel campaign to keep up the pressure.