Breaking the myth of growth as a panacea
Development actors to identify, protect and build resilience of the poorest people in the Sahel
By Cyprien Fabre, Head of Regional Support Office West Africa, ECHO (Directorate General Humanitarian Aids and Civil protection)
Since the 2005 crisis in Niger, the humanitarian community has focused its efforts on the widespread problem of malnutrition. Acute malnutrition started to be measured regularly uncovering appalling malnutrition rates in Niger and, it quickly appeared, throughout the Sahel.
Malnutrition management was steadily improved, in spite of the constraints faced by national health systems. With some time and effort, tackling malnutrition is steadily becoming a higher priority for governments in the region.
It nevertheless also appeared that those malnutrition rates remained high even in ‘good’ agricultural years, and even in areas with substantial agricultural production. In the Sahel it seems there is no direct connection between agricultural production and malnutrition. And yet, the majority of development projects in recent decades have supported national policies focused on agricultural production with an emphasis on food self-sufficiency and export sectors.
But recent studies of the household economy in the Sahel have contradicted the cliché of rural environments where levels of wealth are homogenous.
There is an immense part of the rural population that essentially depends on markets for their food as they do not produce enough for themselves. They are therefore extremely vulnerable to food price variations. They make an income selling produce from small plots with meager crops which, after a bad year, do not allow them to repay debts incurred during the lean period. The worst combination of factors for them is an increase in food prices and a poor harvest or lack of pasture, as was the case in 2012.
People then resort to destructive coping mechanisms. They take up debt at extortionate rates, sell their productive assets and take their children out of school. The most vulnerable find themselves trapped, and each crisis drags them further and further into extreme poverty with increased risks of malnutrition for the children. Resilience is lost.
This dynamic explains why, despite improved coverage by nutrition projects there has been no progress in terms of malnutrition rates in recent years while the number of children is continuing to grow. Poverty is passed on from generation to generation, particularly due to the mother being malnourished and the consequences this has in terms of reduced cognitive development of her children. To reverse this trend it is necessary to prevent malnutrition by combating its fundamental causes.
Clearly, these are not humanitarian problems. However, the Sahel is now permanently in a near emergency state. Each year mobilizes a humanitarian emergency response at great expense. Not for the first time do we hear calls for a new vision and a more harmonious transition from humanitarian to development aid.
The time is now to abandon the idea that growth alone will bring development for all. The time is now for governments of the Sahel to show interest in their poorest people and invest in their productive capacities.
A common analysis framework should be developed in each country of the Sahel in order to determine which causes are linked to poverty in rural environments. With a common objective it is each actor’s responsibility to act coherently at their level. Humanitarian actors will act at the level of individuals and communities and development actors at the regional and national levels. This will enable vulnerable people to be identified and reinserted into productive activities.
This requires specific targeting tools and proactive policies on the part of governments and their financial partners. Examples exist in South America and South Africa where long term social strategies have brought significant progress. Social security nets along with subsidized healthcare, family-based agriculture, water and sanitation for all, nutritional diversity and effective family planning have shown their merit.
This year’s crisis and the tools introduced by humanitarian actors may have helped to change perspectives on development. At the European Union level, these issues have led to the development of AGIR-Sahel (Alliance Globale pour l’Initiative Résilience) which aims to federate the development programmes of the 11th EDF (European Development Fund) and humanitarian programmes to improve the resilience of the most vulnerable people and contribute to the fight against malnutrition.
There are many challenges ahead. Lowering malnutrition rates sustainably will only be possible if the fight against extreme poverty is made a national priority in the countries of the Sahel. This is a moral imperative, and a key for economic growth.
|Women breastfeeding CREDIT: ECHO|