WHD 2013

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Learning the Lessons in the Sahel

By Elise Ford, Humanitarian Policy Advisor / Oxfam

In 2012, the Sahel region of West Africa faced in 3 crises in 7 years.  It was unprecedented in its scale – it affected 18 million people across 9 countries – from Senegal in the West across 4,000km to Chad in the East. And yet, the crisis rarely received the media headlines and attention it deserved.  Marred in a cycle of hunger and chronic poverty, the story of a crisis in this region is no longer seen as news. Suffering was not thought to be sufficiently extreme. And yet, going to communities such as those in the Guera region in Chad, there could be no doubt that poor and vulnerable people had been pushed to the brink of survival. Mothers told me of how they had cut back the number of times they ate to just once or twice a day.  They were forced to bring together scraps to find enough to eat – resorting to boiling nettles or digging anthills for grain. 
I came to West Africa from Nairobi having dealt with the response to the famine that savaged part of Somalia the previous year.  In East Africa, there had been outcry and disappointment at the collective failure to respond to the early warnings received.  Oxfam had pointed to a widespread culture of risk aversion that had resulted in a ‘dangerous delay’, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and livelihoods. We knew that it could have been different.
As warnings emerged that the harvests had been poor and that the Sahel could face a similar crisis, food security experts in the region appeared determined that they would not repeat the mistakes of East Africa. This time they wanted things to be different.  In a Oxfam report released today ‘Learning the Lessons: assessing the response to 2012 food crisis in the Sahel to build resilience’, we analyse to what extent we really were able to do better this time and come to some worrying conclusions.
First, the good news. As soon as the first warnings were issued, governments began to issue appeals and agencies and donors came together to begin planning an appropriate response.  Some donors provided the first contributions for the crisis already at the end of 2011, allowing assistance to provided to those communities most in need before they even began to feel the effects of the critical food shortages and rocketing prices to come.
But the overall verdict is mixed at best. Although there were some initial positive steps, it is clear that the response was still not as good as it could or should have been, nor as many have been claiming. Despite new willingness from governments in the region, there were still critical gaps in their capacity to lead – something we must all take responsibility for.  A lack of consensus around the severity of the crisis led to a critical delay in the response. Donors still preferred to wait for certainty, rather than act on the basis of risk. 50% of the funding requested was still lacking by June. 5.6 million farmers didn’t receive the seeds and tools they needed in time for the main harvest, to help them produce the food to recover. The same old mistakes and flaws from past response reappeared. We’re still failing to learn the lessons.
There is increasing acknowledgement – from Oxfam and others - that the only way these challenges will be overcome is by adopting a new model of doing business rather tweaking an old one. Resilience - the ability of households to survive and thrive despite shocks and stresses – has become an important concept, offering hope that the cycle of hunger can be broken once and for all.  In the immediate resilience means investing in the poorest and most vulnerable communities so that they can recover from this latest crisis and build up the capacity to better cope in the face of future shocks. 
Whilst the 2012 crisis may have come too soon, it is also clear that we can afford no further delay. Conditions in the region are becoming increasingly precarious and unpredictable. The population in the Sahel increases 3% each year – making it constantly harder to produce enough food to meet needs. Climate change threatens to further exacerbate the problem – reducing yields and cultivable land.  According to the FAO, with appropriate action, climate change could mean an additional million people in Mali could fall into poverty by 2050. For some communities that Oxfam works with in Niger, that they describe only one in every three years as a ‘normal’ year.  Rocked by one crisis after another, there are limited prospects for the most vulnerable to escape from poverty.
The challenge is making change happen. The failings of the 2012 response and the poor showing so far in 2013 demonstrate the huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality that still needs to be overcome. Ongoing needs in the region are huge. 10 million people are still food insecure. 5 million are acutely malnourished. The road to recovery will be long. And yet, UN humanitarian appeals for 2013 – designed to meet immediate humanitarian and recovery needs and build the foundations of resilience in the region – remain desperately underfunded. Less than one quarter of the funds needed have been provided so far this year.  Donors have provided few concrete commitments on money to build resilience and improve food security in the region. National governments still need to convert unprecedented political will into actual policies.
The region will inevitably face more crises in the future. When those crises do hit, we must hope communities will be better prepared to withstand and thrive despite of them.  It is the actions that we do or do not take over the next months and years that will be critical in deciding that.

For more go to www.oxfam.org
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