Sahel: Millions need long-term support

22 May 2013

February 2012, Niamey, Niger: A vendor in a bustling market in Niger's capital, Niamey. A range of factors have left an estimated 10.3 million people in need of food assistance across the region. Photo: David Ohana/OCHA
“2013 is not the time to reduce our commitment to the Sahel,” warns regional humanitarian chief.

The UN’s senior humanitarian representative in the Sahel region of West Africa has called on the international community to maintain its commitment to millions of people who face another year threatened by malnutrition, displacement, conflict and high food prices.

Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel and Assistant Secretary-General Robert Piper said that the region remained in crisis, even though the response to last year’s food crisis was “fast and substantial”.

“A lot of things went right in 2012 despite the scale of the challenges,” he said. “The temptation going into 2013 was to breathe a sigh of relief and take the foot off the humanitarian accelerator.

“(But) we can’t take a year off just yet. The Sahel is still in crisis as a region.”

Over 10 million need food

A range of factors have left an estimated 10.3 million people in need of food assistance across the region. Many communities are still reeling from last year’s food crisis, which came less than two years after the previous one. Cereal prices remain high, exacerbated by floods in northern Nigeria (an area that produces 50 per cent of the Sahel’s cereals) as well as insecurity in Nigeria and Mali.

This insecurity and flooding have meant that pastoralists in Chad and Niger are cut off from Nigerian livestock markets, making it difficult for them to sell their cattle at the prices they need to make a living. Finally, continued Piper, many people need assistance because of the very deep nature of their vulnerability.

“We need to recognize that one reasonable agricultural season will not reverse the levels of acute vulnerability in the region,” he said. “Vulnerable households affected by cycles of ever-frequent crises don’t need much of a push to go under the emergency line.”

Funding thwarts efforts to tackle root causes of vulnerability

For 2013, UN agencies and their humanitarian partners have appealed for US$1.7 billion to help them support communities in the nine countries that make up the Sahel. To date, $473 million – about 28 per cent of what is needed – has been received.

“2013 is not the year to reduce our commitments to the Sahel,” said Piper. He noted that the type of funding received was limiting the ability of agencies to respond effectively to the crisis.

Forty-three per cent of the funding that has been received has been directed towards short-term food aid. While this has ensured that 1.2 million people across the region received food assistance in the first two months of 2013, it also meant that aid agencies were constrained in their ability to address the root causes of vulnerability.

“The resources that are being received are slanted to particular sectors,” Piper said. “They do not allow us to tackle the root causes of vulnerability in the Sahel.”

For example, agricultural projects that are designed to help communities build resilience against disasters and break the cycle of aid dependence have received only five per cent of the financial support they need. Only 108,000 of the estimated 5.9 million farmers in need received seeds ahead of the May 2013 planting season, meaning that many millions may face a third year of crisis in 2014.

“Last year’s response to the food crisis was extraordinarily good,” said Piper. “(But) we need to learn from this success. Our record for 2013 looks less promising but it’s not too late.”

The need for greater investment in addressing the root causes of vulnerability will be a major focus of the Fourth Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction that is being held in Geneva this week. This event will see governments, the UN and the wider humanitarian and development communities continue to explore the global framework for reducing disaster risk. It comes on the heels of a new report from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) that warned that direct losses from disasters have been underestimated by at least 50 per cent, and have cost the global economy in the range of $2.5 trillion since the start of this century alone.