A new drumbeat in the Sahel

Woman working degraded soil in Niger

There are clear warning signs that yet another food crisis is looming in the Sahel. If nothing is done now, up to 9 million people in the area are at risk of food shortages and extreme hunger.  Low water levels from patchy rainfall, poor harvests, a lack of pasture, attacks of pests and locusts, high food prices and a fall in overseas remittances have combined to cause serious problems in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.

In the Sahel, grain prices should normally drop significantly after the harvest in November. But they are continuing to rise. In Niger, millet prices were 37 per cent higher in November 2011 than a year earlier, and other key cereals are up to 40 per cent higher than the regional five-year average. These unusually high prices affect poorer households who buy most of their food on the market. Other early warning indicators include a decrease in the price of livestock (because pastoralists and peasant farmers sell animal to buy grain), and unusually early movements of pastoralists to seek water and pasture. “Some families are already down to just one meal a day of watered-down millet porridge,” said Johannes Schoors, CARE’s Country Director in Niger. “In a normal year, the hunger season doesn’t start until April or May, but this year, it has already started.” 

Africa Sahel Region

Africa's Sahel region is experiencing a major food crisis that could turn into a full blown famine.

A Hausa proverb says: if the drumbeat changes, the dance must also change. The looming crisis is irrefutable evidence that the drumbeat in the Sahel has changed. Food crises can no longer be treated as limited events, caused by occasional hazards like droughts or floods. The number of people suffering from chronic food insecurity, high levels of poverty and vulnerability is increasing. Acute food crises, such as occurred in 2005, and again in 2010, are short term peaks, triggered by drought, of an underlying trend of increasing chronic vulnerability.

The frequency of such natural and market-related food shocks affecting the Sahel is increasing.  Rains are shorter and less frequent; pasture land is turning into desert. Local populations have responded to these interactive stresses with coping strategies that include migration, and selling or mortgaging their land, household goods and livestock in pursuit of meeting household needs. These buffers, however, have reached the limits of their effectiveness.  The most vulnerable households have hardly started to recover their livelihoods when they are hit with another major shock. They remain highly indebted. They experience chronic hunger. They survive by relying mainly on donations, remittances from relatives and income from the sale of wood.

Food insecurity and poverty are so endemic that even in years with good harvests, the rate of acute child malnutrition is consistently higher than the emergency threshold of 15% specified by the World Health Organisation. UNICEF estimates that in years with good rainfall, more than 300,000 children die each year from malnutrition-related causes. In 2012, to make things worse, many families have lost a crucial survival option: work in neighbouring countries. Many Nigeriens have come back early from Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Nigeria to because of instability or conflict.

While families in critical need today need emergency assistance, long-term solutions must simultaneously be found. Communities in the Sahel, both small scale farm families and pastoralists, need support to adapt to changing conditions and increase their resilience. 

Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel by Peter Gubbels

Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel by Peter Gubbels

One method has been to improve food production using agro-ecological farming techniques. For example, in the Sahel there is a growing farmer led “re-greening movement” in which farmers foster the natural regeneration of drought resistant trees in their fields. By pruning these trees twice a year, farm families generate a “green manure” or mulch which protects the soil, and also generates wood for cooking.  This system recycles nutrients and energy found on the farm, and reduces dependence on expensive external inputs, such as artificial fertilizers.

Many international agencies are promoting techniques for “Disaster Risk Reduction” (DRR), including adaptation to climate change, in the Sahel. DRR is a broad range of humanitarian and development actions to reduce the most frequent risks affecting the population. Dry season gardens, improved water supply, village cereal banks (so families can buy food at reasonable prices), soil and water conservation techniques, fodder banks, improved roads, and dune stabilisation have all been proven to reduce risk and improve resiliency.

Other programmes that have shown their effectiveness are working with women’s savings and loans groups to develop alternative sources of food such as community vegetable gardens; or training government nurses on prevention and management of malnutrition at the community level. Providing food supplements to slightly malnourished children will help prevent them from sliding into severe malnutrition. Grain can be sold at affordable prices for the most vulnerable families and to replenish the stocks of community cereal banks, fodder provided for animals of small pastoralist families so their herds don’t die. Persuading pastoralists to reduce the number of animals (destocking) by selling them early when pasture and water resources are limited is another important risk reduction initiative.

Various social protection measures are also proving to have a significant impact in overcoming the structural roots of chronic food and nutrition crisis. The most common, direct cash transfers, coupled with livelihood support, has been shown to improve resilience if well targeted to the very poorest households. They are most effective if focused on women who bear the main brunt of poverty, when men migrate to seek temporary work in urban centres or neighbouring countries. Despite many regions suffering poor harvests, food is available on the market. By supporting families to purchase food, this strengthens the local economy.

Since 2005, donors, UN agencies, international NGOs and governments in the Sahel are learning to more effectively address both the acute and chronic dimensions of food insecurity. Generally, international organisations know what works, but it must be done on a much larger scale. But despite the lessons learned in 2005 and 2011, there is deep concern that the pace of institutional change is not yet advanced enough to prevent a major food crisis in the Sahel in 2012. One of the most serious issues is that early warning does not yet trigger effective early action. The food crisis of 2010 indicated that the capacity of governments, UN agencies and donors for an early collective response, at an adequate scale, to protect the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable households is still insufficient. The humanitarian response in 2010 was better than in 2005. It saved lives. However, it failed to prevent massive loss of assets, particularly their livestock, and the means of livelihood of the poorer households, leaving them more vulnerable than before.

There is deep concern that this old familiar cycle will repeat itself in 2012. Humanitarian action will only get into full operation after the food crisis starts to peak, when the media take pictures of emaciated infants. Aid officials privately say that international donors will react promptly only when there is sustained media interest in a potential emergency. Using diplomatic language, they criticise the media for not picking up their crisis alerts. Those in the media reply that they do not know where to draw the line between aid agencies peddling exaggerated claims about impending crises to gain added resources, and accurate warnings. The nature of journalists is to prefer to see for themselves, and that often only happens once conditions have become severe.

Without the public pressure caused by media reports, aid agencies often face a difficult challenge of persuading wealthy governments, before a crisis actually happens, that they need to act quickly and decisively. The evidence indicates that it is only one-tenth the cost to provide effective agricultural support and help communities gain food security than it is to provide food aid at a time of famine. But Western governments find it easier to respond to sudden crisis such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis, than to slow on-set disasters such as drought. If this problem is not solved, all other investments to end the chronic food and nutrition crisis are in serious jeopardy.

To overcome chronic food insecurity, a new approach is needed that integrates humanitarian and development work and better supports recovery and resilience. Sufficient resources for this are lacking. One reason is that the chronically food insecure do not die in massive numbers. In fact, some national and regional leaders, and policy makers responsible for food security appear quite complacent. They publically express a sense of accomplishment that such large scale mortality from famine no longer occurs, but don’t have a sense of urgency about the problem of chronic hunger.

Another issue is that the current architecture of aid still does not provide sufficient, long term, flexible funding for resilience initiatives, particularly for recovery, disaster risk reduction, prevention of malnutrition, and social protection.  Many donor agencies and national level policy makers are still acting within the old relief to development paradigm and are not adjusting quickly enough to address the chronic dimensions of the current food and nutrition crisis. When the “acute” phase of a food crisis subsides, and the rains resume, it is often back to ‘business as usual’. There is often no budget-line for recovery or resilience either in humanitarian or development donor agencies. The chronically food-insecure population of the Sahel are not yet recognised as a priority. They have specific needs that are different from those periodically hit by calamities or those in developmental stages. The lack of dedicated funding mechanisms for addressing chronic food and nutrition insecurity is the most glaring flaw within the current aid architecture.

Domestic politics of Western donor agencies are another contributing factor. Medium- and long-term planning is often the first thing to be cut from an aid budget. After the food price crisis of 2008, when hunger riots erupted around the globe, the G8 promised $22 billion for agricultural development and food security. But many of those commitments have not been met.

A final reason is that within Sahelian countries, the growing mass of chronically food insecure, particularly those living in remote and marginalized areas of the country, have no political power to motivate policy makers and government institutions to address their desperate needs. In marginal rural areas, the poor are often illiterate, unorganised, and have no influence over decision-making.

Chronic hunger in the Sahel continues to be highly under-estimated. Relief interventions have become effective in saving lives but do not prevent desperate coping mechanisms and wide-scale loss of productive assets. Promoting resilience requires a different set of skills, resources, duration of intervention, and partnership arrangements compared to relief. It also requires creating sustainable economic and social conditions for the poor to absorb future shocks. The institutional capacity for this is still poorly developed.

Above all, it is essential that early warning triggers immediate early action. The unpalatable reality is that media attention, not early warning, remains one of the strongest drivers of humanitarian action. For the looming crisis of 2012, the alarm has been raised early: the governments of Niger, Mali and Chad have all declared a disaster and have appealed for international help. If action is taken now, there is still time to prevent more families from plunging into a humanitarian disaster, and to provide urgently-needed assistance to those already in crisis. Failure to act and also allocate adequate funding for recovery and resilience will lead to massive human suffering, and a growing aid-dependent population in the Sahel. The time has come for a new drumbeat in the Sahel.

*This article was first published in German in the publication welt-sichten (www.welt-sichten.org). You may read the German version here

Peter Gubbels is Groundswell’s Regional Facilitator for West Africa. He has written the report “Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel” commissioned by the Sahel Working Group, a network of British and European NGOs working in the Sahel.

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