Escaping the hunger cycle: pathways to resilience in the Sahel

As the world focuses on the East Africa food crisis, what lessons have been learnt since the last two severe food crises in the Sahel region of West Africa in 2005 and 2010? What has to change so that every drought does not result in a new humanitarian crisis? As we hear of failed rains in Niger this year, how can aid be more effective to prevent the next food crisis?

Peter Gubbels – Consultant, Groundswell International

Colum Wilson – Senior Humanitarian Advisor, Africa Regional Department, DFID
Paul Harvey
– Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes
Camilla Knox-Peebles – Senior Emergency Food Security Adviser, Oxfam GB
Jo Khinmaung – Food Security Policy Adviser, Tearfund (by video link from Rome)

Wendy Fenton – Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Event report

Peter Gubbels, the author of ‘Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel’, began with an evocative description of the image on the report’s cover. The image showed Nigerien women returning home having scavenged for wild berries and leaves, one of the severe coping mechanisms that so many thousands of families had to rely on during the 2010 Sahel food crisis.

Peter gave a brief overview of the main findings of the report: success stories from the Sahel since 2005 and the ongoing challenges and new framework for ‘Pathways to Resilience’. The important point to remember is that there is a chronic crisis in the Sahel, exceeding emergency indicators for nutrition and food insecurity, which is ongoing nearly every year. There is some exciting evidence of progress, such as the ‘re-greening’ of millions of hectares of land, the scale-up of cash programmes and much better analysis tools to name but a few. However, we should not underestimate the challenges either. Early Warning Systems and the consequent humanitarian response consistently fail to prevent a crisis of livelihoods. The state fragility in Chad and limited absorptive capacity of many Sahelian governments are often at the heart of late and inadequate responses. The role of markets, and their response to demand over need, is still underestimated.

The framework proposed in the report encompasses all of these factors. It separates the immediate priority actions from the longer-term issues, and uses child nutrition as a key indicator for assessing resilience. It is a robust framework, which is particularly relevant today in October 2011, as we start receiving early warning signals that many parts of the Sahel will suffer again from severe food insecurity in 2012.

The discussants on the panel each picked up on different points within the report. Here is an overview of some of the main themes that were discussed:

“The linear relief-development continuum is dead” (at least on paper) according to Colum Wilson.  But unfortunately too many donors and operational agencies are still structured according to humanitarian or development priorities. This means that ‘resilience’ programmes are often caught between the two. As Jo Khinmaung from Tearfund asked, “why don’t donors have a resilience policy?” These are some of the very real institutional challenges that we are coming up against in the Sahel. DFID admits that its funding mechanisms are still not set up in such a way as to reflect the Sahel context, and that mid-term projects which focus on building resilience often fall between the gaps.

It is important to recognise the positives as well though. As Brian O’Neill and Jan Eijkenaar from ECHO highlighted, the 2010 food crisis response was better than in 2005, and the 2012 response will again be improved. The Sahel Global Plan for ECHO focuses on mixing up the humanitarian and development instruments.  Up to 40% of ECHO humanitarian funding is spent on resilience globally each year. Nutrition is no longer a taboo topic with the Sahel governments. Paul Harvey agreed that there are exciting developments on tackling malnutrition as a chronic rather than just an acute problem, which is one of the key indicators for resilience.

Another challenge remains the lack of consensus between different actors on how to recognise and respond to a crisis. Camilla Knox-Peebles said that in late 2009, there was little agreement on how bad the situation was, or how to scale up existing programmes. She welcomed the Cadre Harmonisé Bonifié (an adaption of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification – IPC), and called on NGOs, donors and the UN to support CILSS in improving this tool.

There were reminders by several discussants about what is happening right now in the Sahel. ECHO is in the middle of planning for its 2012 response, and is asking its partners to have strategic thinking in the areas of nutrition, food security and health. Tearfund emphasised that there has already been a significant political shift in Niger, with the recent request for international assistance by the President of Niger, while Oxfam reminded organisations that responses should take into account the poorest 20-30% of the population, who are not always the easiest to access. ECHO suggested that we should make better choices in our targeting and agreed with the report’s recommendation that nutrition can be a key indicator in making those choices.

The French and English versions of the report can be found at: