Interview: Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel

The food and nutrition crisis continues to affect millions of people across West Africa’s Sahel region. Here, a food vendor in Niger. Credit: OCHA/David Ohana
David Gressly on responding to the multiple crises in the region.

In 2012, aid organizations warned that about 18 million people were affected by the food and nutrition crisis across West Africa’s Sahel region. Drought, poor food production and chronic poverty left many families dependent on aid to cope with the crisis in nine countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, the Gambia, Cameroon and Nigeria. 

Conflict and insecurity in northern Mali compounded the crisis and resulted in the displacement of almost 380,000 people who sought refuge further south or in neighbouring countries, stretching the resources of local communities hosting them. 
 
Despite some progress in food security due to better rains and harvests in the second half of 2012, the conflict in northern Mali continues to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region. In January 2013, nearly 18,000 people fled the conflict to neighbouring countries such as Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.  
 
In this interview, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel David Gressly talks about the impact of the current fighting in Mali, the regional humanitarian response in 2012, and the need to translate the Sahel Resilience Strategy into reality to help people cope with a recurrent food and nutrition crisis. 
 
Q: Thousands of people have been displaced by the latest fighting in central and northern Mali. What are UN agencies and humanitarian partners doing to help them?
 
We have been working very hard to continue finding ways to access people throughout Mali, not just in the central and the north areas. As the confrontation line moves north, as they have in the last few weeks, we need to find ways to move with that to reach more people in need. We are looking for ways to access people who remain isolated and don’t receive any food, either commercially or through our assistance, because the borders are closed. 
 
We have access back into central Mali where we are reinforcing our presence as a logistics base for the area. We are now able to again start sending supplies northward towards Timbuktu. 
 
We are also looking at the possibility of air-dropping food if that is what is required. We will probably access more people if we work with the Malian authorities, as more towns open up to the authorities and the intervention forces. 
 
It is important to keep in mind that the conflict in northern Mali is adding to a broad chronic crisis across the Sahel, in which millions of people have been affected by food insecurity. We project that 10 million people across the Sahel this year, including 2 million in Mali will be affected. 
 
Q. You have been the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator since April 2012. What are some of the significant changes you have seen in the region since then?
 
The food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel affected about 18 million people last year. We projected that over a million children will be affected by severe acute malnutrition, and all of this was linked to the drought of 2011. So, the first thing we did was to address that particular crisis. I’ve seen many assessments and, in general, the response has been considered a success. First of all, the Governments in the region signalled much earlier that there is going to be a problem. This helped mobilize the resources from major donors to be put in place in time. 
 
We started seeing significant resources come in in March, April and May of last year. With a massive humanitarian response on the ground in the nine affected countries, we were able to avert a catastrophe, and the food and nutrition crisis was contained. Unfortunately, playing in the back of all this is the crisis in Mali, which had put a special burden on the food and nutrition crisis. We had to organize ourselves for that crisis as well. 
 
Now, the key is to know how to deal with the chronic nature of the food insecurity and malnutrition across the Sahel. We have to work with our development partners to see if we can put an end to the cycle of drought and food insecurity.
 
Q. The Sahel Resilience Strategy is aimed at bringing Governments, humanitarian agencies, NGOs and development partners together to help people cope with recurrent droughts, floods and conflict. Is the strategy working?  
 
What is important is the collaboration between partners and the understanding that we need to work together in the long term, not just for one or two years. This is a 10- to 20-year project if we plan to bring real change to the Sahel. I think that the foundation to build resilience is now in place. In 2013, we need to make sure that the concepts of resilience are put in place in real operational terms. 
 
On the humanitarian side, there are a few things we can do to contribute to that. Firstly, we have experience dealing with droughts in the region and know what communities are affected by them. I now ask that we map those communities and share that information with development partners who can implement longer-term solutions. 
 
 

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