Food crisis in the Sahel: unlearned lessons | Editorial

Millions in the eastern Sahel are facing famine, just as they did in 2005 – yet the response from some major aid donors has been no swifter than it was then

A catastrophe is about to unfold for millions of the world's poorest people. It happened five years ago, and this time the international aid agencies were in place when the early warning lights started flashing. But it is nonetheless happening all over again. More than 10 million people in the eastern Sahel, in some of the world's poorest nations such as Niger, Chad and Mali, have exhausted their food supply and all their assets two or three months before the next harvest. Thousands of animals have died, forcing pastoralists to leave their villages. In large parts of Niger and Chad, people are eating wild berries and leaves, while fields of stunted millet stand in the baking heat.

The World Food Programme (WFP), which had planned to provide for 2.3 million people in Niger alone between March and October, has had to dramatically revise that figure to 7.9 million. It takes between two and three months for food procured internationally to arrive, but with the rainy season under way in a vast landlocked country like Niger, it may well take longer. That leaves flying the food in or buying it locally. There is food in the local markets, but the prices are high. However, cash- and voucher-based programmes are in their infancy and represent only a fraction of the aid effort. The WFP is buying 5,000 tonnes of grain from the military government in Niger, but the junta wants to keep the bulk of its reserves of grain back to distribute at subsidised prices. It is panic stations, and once again aid workers are finding that there is no easy response.

The question behind all this is why the aid world was taken by surprise. Fewsnet, the famine early warning network run by USAid, warned about the poor millet harvest in the eastern Sahel region as early as November last year. Two further surveys in May and June confirmed that the number of people facing famine in Niger had risen dramatically. It is not as if the signals were not there. But donors and international governments took too long to respond. The WFP argues, not without reason, that with only one-third of the funding needed by the West Africa Consolidated Appeal Process made available, it is hamstrung. It needs another $218m just to respond to the emergency in Niger. It also does most of the heavy lifting in terms of feeding. While Unicef and Médecins sans Frontières plan to feed 115,000 children under two with nutritionally enhanced rations over the next two months, WFP has over 809,000 such children to feed, on top of trying to provide a protection ration to the households of another 924,000 children.

There are some differences from the famine that occurred in the same region in 2005. The major one is that the government in Niger has acknowledged the food crisis, and aid workers say that in this respect the military coup that toppled the elected government in February was a good thing. The same willingness to admit a food crisis is not true in Chad, which is more concerned about the security situation in the eastern part of the country. There are also security fears near Niger's border with Mali, after it emerged that a 78-year-old French aid worker kidnapped there had been executed three months after his capture by an al-Qaida group. But the truth, as Oxfam has warned, is that the response from governments has been less than vigorous. Major institutional donors such as the EU, the US, the UK and Spain have stuck to their commitments, but large parts of the developed world such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are failing to provide anything like what is needed. China, which has interests in a uranium mining project in Niger, is also nowhere to be seen.

In 2005 Jan Egeland, then UN head of humanitarian relief, said it took graphic images of dying children for the world to finally wake up to a famine affecting 2.5 million. While aid agencies have learned what to do, it appears that major donors and countries are still stuck in the same mindset. How little has changed.


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