Issue 55 - Article 1

A new drumbeat for the Sahel

October 1, 2012
Peter Gubbels, Groundswell International
A community vegetable garden in Niger

In the wake of drought in West Africa’s Sahel region, a bleak narrative of an estimated 18.7 million people on the brink of potential catastrophic food crisis has captured media attention. There has been a constant drumbeat of calls from many agencies for more humanitarian funding. Agricultural production in the Sahel fell due to late and irregular rains and prolonged dry spells in 2011. Drought also caused a significant fodder deficit in the pastoral areas of the Sahel. The Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA) meeting of 12–13 April confirmed that Sahel cereal production in 2011 was 26% lower than in 2010. However, 2010 produced a record harvest; if compared to the average of the past five years, total cereal production in the Sahel was only 3% lower than normal. Despite what seems like a modest overall food deficit, a severe food and nutrition crisis has begun. Why?

The 2012 crisis

Although rooted in long-term structural factors, every new acute phase of the Sahel crisis has its own distinct features. The 2012 Sahel crisis differs significantly from those of 2010 and 2005 in several ways.

First, prices of basic foods in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad are exceptionally high. This is one of the most alarming features of the current Sahel crisis. In Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, local millet has risen to 85% above the five-year average. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, the price has more than doubled. Prices were expected to keep rising during the lean season, which ends in August. The scale of price hikes in April surprised governments and humanitarian agencies alike. On average, the poorer rural households in the Sahel produce enough to meet only half of their food needs, and must buy the rest on local markets on which they trade their produce or their labour. With only very small increases in wages, such high food prices have pushed the poorer rural households into hunger, and more children into severe acute malnutrition.

Second, in the wake of the crises in Côte d’Ivoire and Libya, over 200,000 registered economic migrants returned to already vulnerable areas in the Sahel. This increased pressure on communities’ scarce resources and caused tensions over access to public services such as water, health and education. The return of migrant workers, combined with the general downturn in the global economy, greatly reduced income from international remittances. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that the monetary transfers made by every migrant worker in the Sahel support about seven people in their country of origin.

Third, conflict in northern Mali has resulted in the displacement of at least 320,000 people, including more than 187,000 refugees in neighbouring countries; food supplies have been disrupted and there has been largescale looting in Timbuktu and Gao regions.

gubbels-fig-1The frequency of such natural, market, economic and security-related food shocks affecting the Sahel is increasing. Rains are becoming shorter and less frequent, and pasture land is turning into desert. Local people have responded to these stresses with coping strategies that include migration and selling or mortgaging their land, household goods and livestock. These buffers have now reached the limits of their effectiveness. The most vulnerable households barely start to recover their livelihoods when they are hit with another major shock. This lack of resilience, not the 3% regional shortfall in food production compared to the five-year average, explains the massive humanitarian crisis.

The ‘resilience deficit’

Since the last Sahel crisis in 2010, the vast majority of the most vulnerable households have not been able to get out of debt, or restore their normal livelihoods and productive assets, such as seeds and animals. This has undermined people’s capacity to absorb this latest set of shocks. More and more households are falling into the trap of poverty and chronic hunger, from which they cannot escape, even when rains are good. The driver of the Sahel crisis is not the much scrutinised national and regional food deficits. It is the more complex, multi-dimensional ‘resilience deficit’. See William J. Garvelink and FarhaTahir, Misunderstood: Getting the Right Response to Food Shortages in the Sahel (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2012).

A Hausa proverb says: ‘if the drumbeat changes, the dance must also change’. The looming crisis is irrefutable evidence that the drumbeat in the Sahel has changed. Food crises can no longer be treated as limited events, caused by occasional droughts. The number of people suffering from chronic food insecurity and high levels of poverty and vulnerability is increasing. Acute food crises, such as occurred in 2005 and again in 2010, are short-term peaks, triggered by drought, in an unrelenting trend of increasing chronic vulnerability. Food insecurity and poverty are so endemic that, even in years with good harvests, the rate of acute child malnutrition is consistently higher than the emergency threshold of 15% specified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). UNICEF estimates that, in years with good rainfall, more than 286,000 children die annually from malnutrition-related causes.

While families need emergency assistance today, long-term solutions must simultaneously be found. Communities in the Sahel, both farming families and pastoralists, need support to adapt to changing conditions and increase their resilience. As the 2012 Sahel crisis enters its most critical stage, governments have started to give urgent attention, not just to responding to the crisis, but also to finding ways to break the cycle of chronic hunger and malnutrition. At a high-level inter-ministerial meeting on regional food crises in the Togolese capital Lomé on 5 June 2012, co-financed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), governments made a strong appeal for concerted measures to address the root causes of recurrent food and nutritional deficiencies in the Sahel and West Africa, and for coordinated mobilisation of resources to ensure the consistency and efficiency of sustainable development.

The way forward, espoused by major humanitarian, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and development actors working in the Sahel, is often framed in terms of the concept of resilience. This reflects a consensus that, in order to break the cycle of hunger, humanitarian and development efforts need to be better integrated so as to ‘strengthen the resilience’ of vulnerable population groups. UN agencies have made strong public pronouncements, organised workshops and prepared strategies, conceptual frameworks and planning documents on resilience. Some donors, notably the UK, have adopted a ‘resilience agenda’. The World Resources Institute and the influential Montpellier Panel have published reports on the role of agriculture in resilience. See World Resources Institute, Roots of Resilience: Growing the Wealth of the Poor, 2008; The Montpellier Panel, Growth with Resilience: Opportunities in African Agriculture (London: Agriculture for Impact, 2012).  In the UK, ten international organisations have formed an Interagency Resilience Working Group to develop a common understanding and framework for resilience. The list of agencies embracing resilience continues to grow.

Pathways to resilience

What are some of the pathways for strengthening resilience? One major pathway, and the one most favoured by governments, is to invest in agriculture to increase food production. Unfortunately, most proposals relate primarily to providing fertiliser, improved seed and irrigation. The limitation of such agricultural programmes is that increased productivity in the short term is the only focus. Most of the poorer households in marginal agricultural areas, where rural hunger is concentrated, do not benefit. Much more promising is the promotion of proven, low-cost agroecological farming techniques, including agro-forestry, and soil and water conservation. These approaches have improved sustainability and long-term resilience, not just productivity, as explicit objectives. In the Sahel, there is a growing farmer-led ‘re-greening movement’, whereby small farmers foster the natural regeneration of droughtresistant trees in their fields. By pruning these trees twice a year, farm families generate a green manure or mulch that increases soil fertility and generates wood for cooking. This system regenerates degraded farm land, recycles nutrients and energy found on the farm and reduces dependence on expensive external inputs, such as artificial fertilizers.

For other international agencies in the Sahel, another pathway to resilience is to promote techniques for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), including adaptation to climate change. DRR encompasses a broad range of humanitarian and development actions to reduce the most frequent risks affecting people. Dry season gardens, improved water supplies, village cereal banks (so families can buy food at reasonable prices), fodder banks, improved roads and dune stabilisation have all been proven to reduce risk and improve resilience.

Other programmes work with women’s savings and loans groups to develop alternative sources of food, such as community vegetable gardens, or train government nurses on the prevention and management of malnutrition at the community level. Providing food supplements to slightly malnourished children helps prevent them from sliding into severe malnutrition. Grain can be sold at affordable prices for the most vulnerable families, and to replenish the stocks of community cereal banks, and fodder can be provided for animals of small pastoralist families so their herds do not die of hunger. Persuading pastoralists to reduce the number of animals (destocking) by selling them early, when pasture and water resources are limited, is another important risk-reduction initiative.

Various social protection measures are also attracting increased interest because of their potential impact on the structural roots of chronic food and nutrition crisis. One common mechanism is direct cash transfers, often coupled with ‘light conditions’ for behaviour change. Many studies have shown that social transfers can improve resilience and reduce hunger and child malnutrition if targeted to the very poorest households. Such measures are most effective if focused on women, who bear the brunt of poverty, and can reduce the flow of men who migrate to seek temporary work in urban centres or neighbouring countries.

Early warning and response is another critical pathway for overcoming the resilience deficit. The food crisis of 2010 indicated that the capacity of governments, UN agencies and donors to mount an early collective response, at an adequate scale, to protect the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable households is still inadequate. The humanitarian response in 2010 was earlier and better than in 2005. It saved lives. However, it failed to prevent massive loss of assets, particularly livestock and the means of livelihood of the poorer households, leaving people more vulnerable than before. In 2012, the early response in most countries was much faster than in 2010. However, with the resilience of the most vulnerable groups so low, particularly if assessed by near-emergency levels of acute child malnutrition even in good years, it clearly will not be sufficient to prevent death. The UN estimates that the case load of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) will increase from 872,000 cases (for 2011) to 1,027,900 expected cases in 2012. According to The Lancet, SAM increases the risk of child death by 9.7 times. Cited in World Vision, Global Health and Nutrition, 2012,

Another serious issue that has emerged in 2012 is that early warning did not automatically trigger effective early action, based on pre-prepared contingency plans. Donor responses were initially delayed by problems in harmonising the analysis of FEWS NET with that of other early warning agencies as regards the scope and gravity of the crisis. In addition, there is still a tendency for international donors to provide sufficient funding only when there is sustained media interest in a potential emergency. However, media professionals are not early warning specialists. They find it difficult to know when predictions are accurate, or when aid agencies are making perhaps exaggerated claims about impending crises to stimulate an adequate response. Journalists generally prefer to go and see for themselves, and that often only happens as conditions become severe.

Without the public pressure caused by media reports, aid agencies often face a difficult challenge in persuading governments that they need to act not just quickly but at an adequate scale, before a crisis actually happens. Despite early action by many donors, as the affected populations in the Sahel entered the most critical period in June (the lean season, when the rains and farm work begins) there remained huge gaps to fill and areas to strengthen quickly if the humanitarian response was effectively to meet the needs of the most vulnerable households. By early June, the sum of all the consolidated appeals (CAP) for the Sahel in 2012 totalled $1.6 billion, of which just 39% had been funded. Niger’s CAP of $450 million was 34% funded. Mali’s CAP was 44% funded. Burkina Faso’s CAP of $126 million was the most underfunded, at 27%. The unpalatable reality is that media attention, not early warning, remains one of the strongest drivers of humanitarian action.

Since 2005, donors, UN agencies, international NGOs and governments in the Sahel have started to more effectively address not just the acute but also the chronic dimensions of food insecurity. Generally, the key actors know the promising pathways for resilience, but sufficient resources to pursue them are lacking. One reason for this is that the chronically food-insecure do not die in massive numbers. While the 2012 crisis may bring about an important shift in attitudes, national and regional leaders and policy-makers responsible for food security have not had a sense of urgency about the problem of chronic hunger and malnutrition. The chronically food-insecure population of the Sahel is not yet recognised as a priority. These people have specific needs that are different from the needs of those periodically hit by calamities, or those in developmental stages. The lack of dedicated funding mechanisms for addressing chronic food and nutrition insecurity is the most glaring flaw in the current aid architecture.

To overcome chronic food insecurity, a new approach is needed that integrates humanitarian and development work and better supports recovery and resilience. The current architecture of aid still does not provide sufficient, long-term, flexible funding for resilience initiatives, particularly for recovery, disaster risk reduction, the prevention of malnutrition, social protection, and livelihood promotion for the poorest households. Many donor agencies and national policy-makers, while committed to resilience, are acting within institutional mechanisms and mandates that are based on the outmoded ‘relief to development paradigm’. They are not adjusting quickly enough to the need to address the chronic dimensions of the current food and nutrition crisis.

Even with good intentions and commitment, and knowledge of the major pathways, transforming institutional mechanisms to strengthen the resilience capacity of communities and vulnerable households takes time. It requires a comprehensive, multi-sectoral, coordinated and long-term approach. The elements of resilience are inter-dependent. They need to work in mutually reinforcing ways. But individual agencies are not set up to focus on resilience, and do not effectively integrate relief and development work. Within government, resilience requires actions that cut across different institutions. The same applies in the UN agencies, and within donors and international NGOs.

The approach to resilience in the Sahel is highly fragmented, dysfunctional and ineffective. At best, current efforts seem only to slow down the rate at which people’s resilience is being eroded. There is no consensus on what resilience would look like if it were achieved, or how to monitor and assess it. Actors differ in the dimensions of resilience they focus on, the beneficiaries and geographic areas they target and their favoured solutions. As noted by OCHA, resilience ‘require[s] integrated strategies by governments and between governments in the region, with the active participation of civil society, development partners and the private sector’. OCHA, Strategic Document Version 2 Response Plan Addressing the Food and Nutrition Crisis in the Sahel, February 2012, p. 2.

This is not happening. A review of the resilience frameworks cited above suggests a strong tendency for actors to ‘repackage’ most of what they already do within the new discourse and conceptual framework of ‘resilience’, focusing on favoured techniques rather than making the systemic changes that are required. Beyond the rhetoric, many actors are mostly carrying on business as usual when the acute phase of a food crisis subsides, and the rains resume. Few have yet made institutional changes or developed new ways of working that support resilience. There is often no budget line for recovery or resilience, either in humanitarian or development agencies. Effectiveness is also limited, because the main actors are not engaged in a systematic, comprehensive approach to resilience. Instead, resilience is still being promoted largely through ‘siloed’ interventions within technical sectors or institutional mandates. Humanitarian and development actors are not engaged in a comprehensive approach developed for specific livelihood and geographic contexts, in which synergies between different levels and sectors are achieved, within an integrated system.

Chronic hunger in the Sahel continues to be badly underestimated. Relief interventions have become effective at saving lives, but do not prevent people from adopting desperate coping mechanisms. Nor do they prevent widescale loss of productive assets. Promoting resilience requires a different set of skills and resources, longer-term interventions and different partnership arrangements compared to relief. It also requires creating sustainable economic and social conditions so that the poor can better absorb future shocks. The institutional capacity for this is still poorly developed. The time has come for a new drumbeat in the Sahel.

Peter Gubbels is a rural development consultant working in association with the NGO Groundswell International in West Africa. He is the author of Escaping the Hunger Cycle: Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel, commissioned by the Sahel Working Group (SWG), a network of British and European NGOs working in the Sahel, and Ending the Everyday Emergency: Children and Resilience in the Sahel, commissioned by World Vision and Save the Children.


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