Devastating but preventable food crises will hit the world's poorest countries yet again because of a failure to address the root causes of the problem. The warning that millions of people in the Sahel region of Africa are as vulnerable as ever to famine comes in a report launched by the Sahel Working Group - a coalition of prominent aid organisations - and the International Institute for Environment and Development. The report , Beyond any Drought, identifies the underlying factors that make people in the region vulnerable to food shortages, and warns that unless these factors are addressed, there will be more and worse food crises.
But it says short-term solutions are being applied to a long-term problem and that the development and emergency responses of different agencies - including governments, donors and aid organisations - need to be joined up.
"People blame locusts, drought and high food prices for the crisis that affected more than 3 million people in Niger in 2005," says Vanessa Rubin, Africa Hunger Advisor for CARE International UK, and author of a briefing paper that accompanies the report. "But these were just triggers. The real cause of the problem was that people there are chronically vulnerable. Two years later, they still are."
This is because poor farmers and pastoralists have been marginalised, women lack rights and access to healthcare, education and property, and traditional ways of life are being eroded.
"Poor farmers and herders buy up to 60% of their food from the market but prices fluctuate wildly, even in times of plenty," says Rubin. "When people are forced to take on debt or sell assets such as land or livestock to buy food, they wave goodbye to the very things that help them to cope with the challenges of living within the region."
"Governments need to support the livelihoods of poor farmers and pastoralists," says Mbairodbbee Njegollmi, Regional Advisor for Tearfund, a member of the Sahel Working Group. "Donors need to redesign their aid packages. And both need to focus on making the poor more resilient to future shocks."
The report focuses on three of the world's four poorest countries: Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. It urges international agencies to direct more aid to the region and to close the gap between supporting development and responding to emergencies. These two efforts - often promoted by the same agency - are rarely coordinated and may not even share objectives.
Niger is the world's poorest country, yet it ranks 71st in the amount of aid it receives per capita. Much of this aid is in the form of food donations, which undoubtedly save lives but do nothing to address people's vulnerability to future shocks.
Donors have also promoted poverty reduction strategies that assume that liberalising markets will create wealth for all. But poor cotton farmers in Burkina Faso and Mali have been unable to trade their way out of poverty because fertiliser is expensive and US subsidies to its own cotton farmers price African farmers out of the market.
"History will repeat itself unless governments in the Sahel and donor agencies adopt an entirely new strategy for the region," says Camilla Toulmin, director of IIED. "This needs to build on the knowledge, skills and priorities of local people, strengthening local rights to land, soils and water, and giving people a voice in how decisions are made. Building local resilience is key to reducing vulnerability."
Dr Youba Sokona, Executive Secretary of the Observatory of the Sahel and Sahara in Tunisia, warns that climate change could make people in the Sahel even more vulnerable to food crises. "Many communities in the Sahel are using traditional knowledge to increase their resilience to climate stress. But they need external financial support and the backing of their governments to ensure that their traditional farming and herding options remain open to enable them to do this."
The report's findings were presented and discussed by its authors, representatives of the Sahel Working Group and guest speakers, including Youba Sokona and Mustapha Darboe, Regional Director for West Africa, World Food Programme at Chatham House, London, on 11 July.
The full report Beyond Any Drought or a two-page briefing paper by Vanessa Rubin on the report's findings and recommendations are available from: Mike Shanahan, Press Officer, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), [email protected] or Tel: +44 (0)20 7388 2117
Notes to editors:
The Sahel Working Group (SWG) is an inter-agency network focusing on Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. It was formed to identify and implement solutions to the chronic vulnerability and hunger of communities, as highlighted by the 2005 food crisis. The SWG shares information, commissions research and coordinates programming and advocacy messages. Participating agencies that have jointly commissioned the report, Beyond Any Drought, are: Action Against Hunger, British Red Cross, CARE International, Christian Aid, Concern Worldwide, Oxfam, Relief International, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: http://www.iied.org).
The Sahel is an area that extends across Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Three countries in the West African part of the Sahel - Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger - are among the four poorest countries in the world.