Why is the Sahel food security crisis still below the radar? Kirsty Hughes reports from the region.

Kirsty Hughes

I have just visited the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa where over ten million people are facing hunger with many, including hundreds of thousands of young children, badly malnourished.

This food crisis is not a new story.

Drought in October 2009 contributed to poor and failed harvests. Early warning indicators were flashing amber and red back then. Unicef warned last autumn that hundreds of thousands of small children could face acute malnutrition in Niger, Chad, Mali and other countries of the Sahel.

Some small scale non-governmental organisation (NGO) aid work started in January, but the overall international response has been too little, too late.

Women  collect water and firewood in the Sahel, Niger. Image: Oxfam GB

Women collect water and firewood in the Sahel, Niger. Image: Oxfam GB

Now it is early August 2010 and all the worst scenarios are unfolding in countless villages across the region. The Sahel is a region of chronic food insecurity. It’s a region where these chronic indicators of hunger and malnutrition would trigger an emergency reaction in many other countries around the world.

And as chronic tipped so predictably into acute by March and April this year, why were aid plans mostly so timid and underfunded? Why has media attention been so sporadic and occasional?

The UN’s top emergency coordinator, John Holmes, visited the region in April. At a UN event on the Sahel on 20 July he underlined the desperate urgency of a food crisis that is now being labelled worse than the region’s last acute crisis in 2005.

A Unicef survey of nutrition in Niger published at the end of June that showed 16.7% of under-fives faced global acute malnutrition has pushed the World Food Programme into an urgent last minute effort to reach almost eight million people in Niger by August – many more than the 2.3 million it had planned for.

NGOs such as Oxfam have been saying over seven million people are at risk for many months.

At the end of June, I witnessed the desperation of ordinary families in Niger firsthand. Travelling through the semi-arid desert from the capital Niamey, we came to a small dusty village and sat down with a group of village women. They showed us the leaves they pulled from bushes to cook to eat; the sour, acrid-tasting berries they walked miles in the desert to find as a last resort to stave off total starvation. They said this was not the normal lean season, but a desperate time.

Kirsty  Hughes with villagers near Ouallam, Niger. Image: Oxfam GB

Kirsty Hughes with villagers near Ouallam, Niger. Image: Oxfam GB

We were watched by their weak, famished-looking children. They told us their animals had all died and they feared they would too. “We are weak and dying like our cattle,” they told us. “God will decide who lives and who dies.”

Yet back in Niamey, just over two hours drive on a rough road from where people are starving, there is food in the market but people cannot afford it. With no funds left after a failed harvest last year, and their animals dying or too thin to get a decent price in the market this year, this is a crisis of poverty not of food availability.

How and why are we here again in such a food crisis? A multitude of reasons for sure, but some are obvious.

Donors have to ask themselves if they gave too little and/or too late. Any why? Most did one or both.

Donors and international agencies have to ask themselves why did they set up early warning systems only to ignore them?

Governments in the region have to face up to their failures to admit to crisis at all. In Niger, it was only after the coup in March this year that there was full recognition of the scale of the challenge the country faced.

The media are also culpable. Surely must ask themselves why they can’t make a story out of a looming crisis and feel they have to wait until the most pitiful pictures are to be had.

And lying behind all of these factors, we all have to ask why in some of the poorest countries in the world there is not more aid, and more effective aid, tackling the long-term chronic food insecurity that undermines these countries’ development.

With serious investment in agriculture and livestock, in social protection, in alternative livelihoods, in the host of things we know can make a difference and reduce chronic food insecurity.

If we tackle this long-term poverty, we create the resilience that means a drought does not mean disaster; a problem does not become a crisis.

Like 2005, 2010 is a year of crisis or Niger – donors, international agencies, international and national NGOs, and national governments all have it in their power to make sure this is the last such crisis in the Sahel.

But will they?

About Kirsty Hughes

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Head of the Public Policy and Advocacy team at Oxfam GB, which is comprised of four main groups focusing on humanitarian and conflict issues, financing for development, climate change, and private sector and development. She has worked in a number of European thinktanks (including as head of the European Programme at Chatham House, and Friends of Europe, Brussels) and as a journalist writing on European and international politics since the early 1990s. She has also worked at senior level in the European Commission.

You may also be interested in: