A Tale of Two Food Crises: How to Respond, not Whether to Respond – By Laura Hammond

Potential famine in West African Sahel can be alleviated through prompt international action

Last week the United Nations announced that famine conditions in Somalia had eased, thanks to a good harvest and strong response from the humanitarian community. It warned, however, that failure to continue to respond could have dire consequences and urged donors to continue to give generously to the 2.34 million people still living in crisis. At the same time, West Africa’s food security is deteriorating, with 9 million people living in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger all experiencing extreme food shortages as a result of drought and high food prices. Mamadou Biteye, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Lead in West Africa, said, ‘The crisis has been identified early, and we know that there are cost-effective measures that can be taken now to protect those most vulnerable. This time we can act before the emergency hits.’

Can the world afford to respond to two near-famines at the same time? As the great global media eyeball shifts westward from the Horn to the Sahel, will one crisis be forgotten as another intensifies?

There are reasons for considering these two crises to be part of a wider trend. Both are chronically arid regions which suffer from food shortages with increasing frequency. Celeste Hicks’ excellent blog for African Arguments identifies the main causes of the crisis: drought, rising food prices, lack of cash incomes. The last major food emergency in the Sahel was only two years ago, and people are still recovering from it.

Agropastoral populations, who make up the majority of people affected in both eastern and western crises, require several years of positive harvests in order to return to their homes, rebuild their herds, and restart their agricultural activities. In the first few years after a major crisis one poor rainy season can send people tumbling beneath the bare subsistence level and make them dependent upon whatever life-saving support is available. Their focus on rebuilding livelihoods often must be abandoned in favour of the more pressing task of staying alive from day to day.

Violent conflict also features in parts of the Sahel’s food emergency. Fighting has been reported in northern Mali as weapons from the Libya insurgency have made their way into the local market, fuelling the separatist claims of the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). As in the Horn of Africa, conflict disrupts trade flows, displaces people from their farms and their herds, and may block access to relief supplies.

There are some important differences between the two crises as well. In the Horn of Africa, access to the worst affected areas is a massive problem, particularly because many western-based aid agencies have been expelled from areas under al-Shabaab control over the past two years. Fears in donor countries that money might end up in the wrong hands has made both aid agencies and private citizens wary of being found to be liable for unwittingly funding terrorists. In the Sahel, except in the limited conflict areas, difficult access is generally more about pot-holed roads and lack of infrastructure than it is about insecurity. The Sahel also has governments, notably that of Niger, who are proactive in preventing a worsening of conditions. In the Horn, Ethiopia has also proven somewhat proactive, but in Somalia governance conditions contribute to the problem rather than alleviate it.

Another major difference is that in the Sahel, donors seem not to be waiting for famine to develop to take action. The European Union has pledged $138 million to the region, according to IRIN, and bilateral donors have also begun to make significant pledges. Perhaps they have learned a lesson from the Horn and do not want to be seen to be making the same mistakes again so soon, but in the Horn the relief effort did not scale up until the UN had declared that two districts were already hit by famine, whereas in the Sahel the surge has already begun. Much will depend upon it being sustained, and on money being used for preventive measures rather than keeping people alive when they have already lost everything.

The regional aspects of the crises should be recognised as well. In the Sahel, the conflicts in Libya and Cote D’Ivoire have sent many migrant workers back to their countries of origin or made it impossible for them to earn enough money to support their families who rely on them. As we saw during the 2005 famine in Niger, skyrocketing regional grain prices – particularly in Nigeria – had knock-on effects throughout the rest of the region.

The differences between west and east should not imply that a decision should be made about whether to take action in one place and not the other. Rather, they point to the need for appropriate responses in each place. In the Horn of Africa, there is a need to continue to think creatively about how to get aid into areas where access is limited, and to promote recovery of those who have already been badly affected by the food crisis. This means herd restocking, provision of agricultural supplies, possibly cash vouchers in areas where food is available in the market but people cannot afford to purchase it, and emergency nutrition and health support where it is needed. The politics of responding to the crisis in the Horn is front and centre.

In the Sahel, the crisis is expected to peak between April and September. The emphasis must be, for now until at least the next rains are expected in September, on protecting people’s livelihoods – herd destocking (buying up animals before they perish or lose their market value), providing employment opportunities for those who depended on labour migration or whose farm income is no longer sufficient, and delivering food and cash support to people so that they will not have to sell off their last remaining productive assets.

Failure to respond quickly or robustly enough to the livelihood stabilisation and recovery needs in the Horn, and to preventive measures in the Sahel, may bring famine back to these regions. The question is not can the international community work with local actors on the ground to respond to these two crises, but will they?

Laura Hammond is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

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