Hope resists despair in Sahel

Friday, February 24, 2012 • Mara Caputo

Pockets of successful resilience that provide a blueprint for a way beyond chronic food insecurity are mitigating mounting despair across the drought-ridden Sahel.

The despair is born of a deepening food crisis as an estimated 12 million people concentrated primarily in the West African region of the Sahel teeter on the brink of famine. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Niger have already declared states of emergency and called for international assistance.

The United Nations says that a shortfall of more than 500,000 tonnes of grain and 10 million tonnes of animal feed has left up to six million people at risk of hunger in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. In Burkina Faso, the deficit could leave as many as two million people at risk. Pastoralists, mothers and children under the age of five are the most vulnerable groups.

ACT Alliance governing board member Paul Valentin was in Burkina Faso recently, where he saw some of the human faces impacted by these dramatic numbers: families surviving on what they could gather from trees; many are eating just once a day.

“There is a sense of despair because people literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” said Valentin, who also serves as international director of ACT Alliance member Christian Aid.

A series of interrelated developments have reinforced each other, compounding food insecurity in the region: cyclical droughts, severe flooding, crop failure, rising food prices, and depleted grain and livestock reserves resulting from previous years’ crises have undermined people’s ability to survive the regular lean period that usually begins in May or June.

This situation has been further exacerbated by the spillover effects of political turmoil and conflict in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. Clashes in Mali between Tuareg rebels and soldiers have left more than 60,000 people internally displaced and a similar number have fled to Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Algeria, placing further strain on already depleted water reserves and animal pastures in these neighbouring countries.

Towards a sustainable solution

Food scarcity is a chronic problem in the region and this emerging crisis comes on the heels of major international aid interventions in 2005 and 2010. Until the structural factors that contribute to regular food shortages are eradicated, many parts of West Africa will remain vulnerable to famine.

The need for sustainable, structural solutions to food insecurity has helped shape ACT’s response to previous years’ crises and will continue to do so as this new humanitarian episode unfolds. ACT is working not only to provide immediate food aid, but also to help people hit by the crisis provide for themselves over the long term.

In Mauritania, for example, ACT is funding emergency food aid through its implementing member, The Lutheran World Federation with a focus on populations most at risk to famine, including pregnant women and children. At the same time, ACT is also working to help these populations develop their capacities to produce food and earn the small income that will allow them to become self-sufficient and free from aid.

“ACT’s work in Mauritania is focused on bridging that aid-development continuum. We are committed to providing humanitarian relief to the most vulnerable – but we also want to empower people to generate sustainable food and income for themselves and their families,” said ACT General Secretary John Nduna.

ACT’s focus on strengthening people’s resilience to crises like this one is manifest in the work of many other members in the region, including Christian Aid. In response to previous years’ crises, Christian Aid has helped local communities in Burkina Faso dig wells and engage in intensive food production.

Valentin reported that these communities are faring relatively well. They are able to secure water, provide nutrition for themselves and produce goods to sell – helping carry them through the lean period into the next harvest.

“Driving through a totally parched landscape and arriving at a place where you suddenly have a green oasis of everything under the sun growing and being tended to by local people – with women playing a very important role in production but also benefiting from the fruits of their labour – shows that even in the Sahel you can do things that defy the logic that this is a hopeless place,” concluded Valentin.

Nduna echoed this sentiment. “This is at the heart of ACT’s message: not only to provide emergency relief to the most vulnerable populations but also to help build resilience to chronic food insecurity, so that people can look after themselves and minimise the need for outside intervention.”