On Monday, leaders from around the world – high level representatives from governments, international and regional organisations, and aid agencies – gathered in Brussels to discuss the escalating food crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa. The conference concluded with participants agreeing to launch a ‘Partnership for Resilience’, and to set targets and agree upon a division of labour for strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable households in the Sahel. It’s a promising step forward in our collective efforts to tackle chronic food insecurity and recurring crises in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
An estimated 18 million people are affected by the crisis in the Sahel, including a million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Summer in the Sahel is always hard, with the produce saved from previous harvests running scarce, and many families forced to dip into savings to supplement their stocks so that they can survive through to the next harvest. But this year, following last year’s poor rains, the food that would normally be stored simply isn’t there. At the same time, food prices have skyrocketed, putting basic items out of reach of the poorest families.
Earlier this month, Save the Children completed a study of household economies across six Sahelian countries. The study took as its starting point the fact that a person needs 2,100 calories each day to survive. It found that the poorest households have ‘survival deficits’ of between 40 per cent and 80 per cent. A ‘survival deficit’ is the percentage of the minimum required food intake that a household is unable to access. In parts of Mauritania, for example, the poorest families have a ‘survival deficit’ of 80 per cent for the June – September period, meaning that over this period these households will have just one fifth of the food needed to survive. This is just 420 calories per person per day. The average Australian consumes 3,280 calories each day.
The U.N. has estimated that $1.5bn is required to meet food and nutrition needs in the Sahel. Some donors have responded reasonably generously, including the Australian government, but overall the response is nowhere near what it needs to be. This is particularly disappointing in light of all of the rhetoric about lessons learned from the delayed response to last year’s crisis in East Africa.
The current crisis requires an immediate solution. But what’s equally important is to recognise that the Sahel is suffering a long-term malnutrition problem that as an international community we have failed to fix. Malnutrition and related causes kill more than 200,000 children a year, ‘global acute malnutrition’ rates are consistently high, and the cost of malnutrition throughout the region is estimated at 2-3 per cent of GDP. Twenty 20 per cent of the population live permanently on the edge of survival, and are easily pushed over the edge by ‘shocks’ such as poor harvests or high food prices. Throw climate change into the mix, and we see a shortening of the gap between what have always been cyclical crises, evidenced by the major food crises in 2005, 2008, 2010 and now again in 2012. This means less time for communities to recover from one crisis and prepare for the next one, resulting in a situation now characterised not so much by cyclical crises and recovery but by chronic food insecurity.
International recognition of the need to tackle food security and malnutrition in Africa, and to strengthen community resilience to cope with crises, is gaining momentum. Already the response to this year’s crisis in the Sahel is better than the response to the crisis in East Africa last year. But in a world where we have sufficient resources to ensure that everyone has enough to eat, all the time, the fact that we even need to call for a large-scale emergency response just so that people can survive the lean season isn’t good enough.
Sahelian communities have dealt with food shortages for generations, and have enormous capacity to cope with hardship. But this resilience has been eroded, coping mechanisms have been exhausted, and the situation will not be reversed without sustained international support.
The new ‘Partnership for Resilience’ presents an opportunity for global leaders to agree on a robust strategy for breaking the cycle of crises and malnutrition in the Sahel. Donors must seize the opportunity to make substantial commitments towards delivering well-targeted cash transfers, supporting social protection systems, and supporting food reserves that can protect against food price volatility. The commitment required is substantial: the conference’s outcome statement estimates that more than $900m is required to provide the most vulnerable families with social safety nets to see them through the lean seasons between now and 2015. It sounds like a lot, but if such assistance could avert or even mitigate the worst effects of a $1.5bn crisis, it’ll be money well spent.
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