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Humanitarian Emergencies

Donors Must Seize 2013 Opportunity in Sahel, U.N. Urges

A nutritionist assesses the health of a child in Mauritania: red indicates severe malnutrition. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

WASHINGTON, Oct 3 2012 (IPS) - Reporting that the worst of the food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa appears to have been averted, the United Nations’ top official on the area, David Gressley, warned on Wednesday that the potential passing of the immediate emergency should not divert international attention from what needs to be done in 2013, which he calls a critical year for building resilience in the region.

The prospect for a breakthrough in 2013 has been brought about by the confluence of significant international focus on the Sahel at the same time as several governments in the region, most notably Niger, have begun serious, proactive work on addressing some of the root causes of the area’s vulnerability.

But Gressley worries that this opportunity could be undone not only by the prospect of a fairly good harvest this year, but also by the chaotic situation in Mali diverting international attention.

“With good news, the danger is that we’ll forget the chronic crisis – there will continue to be food security issues across Sahel, and we know a drought will hit again in the future,” Gressley, the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, a new and unusually broad position to which he was appointed in April, said here in Washington.

“We have a choice to let chronic problems continue, responding with massive assistance packages, or we can start taking action today to try to reduce the impact – both the human suffering and cost of response. But we need very strong political will among countries and donors to look at how to do that.”

The Sahel region – nearly a dozen countries on the southern border of the Sahara desert – experienced a catastrophic, though not unique, drought last year, which destroyed harvests and livestock. Due to the drought, there are still an estimated 18 million households in the Sahel experiencing food insecurity, as well as around a million children with acute malnutrition.

There have been mounting concerns that a second poor harvest was in the works this year, and the World Bank warned in late August that prices for maize and sorghum in parts of the Sahel were again at near-record highs. But the arrival of relatively strong rains, coupled with a massive international effort, has lessened such anxieties for the time being.

Looking to the long term

Nonetheless, the donor commitments for the international effort towards the Sahel topped 1.6 billion dollars, around 350 million dollars of which came from the United States and more from the European Union. (Around 1.3 billion dollars of that went to efforts at mitigating the food crisis, while the rest went to a still underfunded effort at dealing with the refugees that have been forced to flee.)

And while that effort so far appears to have been able to avert a crisis this year, Gressley says the money expended has done little to help affected communities prepare for such inevitable situations down the road.

“It’s good to know that early action can have a positive impact,” Gressley says. “But crises generate support for only a certain amount of time and that then quickly dissipates; with the good rains, people are already talking about other things. In fact, a humanitarian response of this kind is usually required only in the case of political and development failures – and across the Sahel, there is certainly a failure of development.”

Even in a year with a good harvest – as this year’s could prove to be – a quarter-million children are still expected to die across the countries of the Sahel. That long-term structural problem, experts say, is a vulnerability that can quickly turn into a full-blown crisis at any time.

In order to go forward with the resilience programme that the United Nations and others are now embarking on, Gressley says international donors will need to offer solid commitments for five- or even 10-year initiatives.

That is a tall order, particularly as donors around the world are scaling back their projects amidst the imposition of austerity measures. Further, the United States, for one, has a policy of not allocating funding beyond a three-year horizon.

Still, there is currently general agreement among the major funders that resilience projects in the Sahel are required. The most potentially far-reaching new initiative is being spearheaded by the European Commission, a partnership unveiled in June called AGIR Sahel.

While the partnership’s initial focus was specifically on the acute crisis that was then unfolding, its initial declaration was notably forward-looking. “Participants agreed that a concerted effort by governments and organisations of the region and humanitarian and development partners is needed,” the declaration states, “both to address the current crisis and to minimize the scale of similar crises in the future.”

While Gressley lauds the AGIR Sahel partnership, he says that the current combination of international focus and progressive attitudes within several Sahel governments “may not be repeated if we don’t take it” within the next year.

The security lens

The larger obstacle to allowing for a 2013 push by the international community for resilience within the Sahel could be the still unfolding situation in Mali, where since March a political and security vacuum has resulted in multiple armed groups taking control of the country’s massive north.

“The kind of security issues we see in Mali are the biggest threat to our resilience approach,” Gressley warns. “The danger is in getting fully absorbed by political issues – humanitarian access, etc. – and forgetting about the longer-term problems. If that happens, we will lose the opportunity to address both the food security issue and also the marginalisation that has built up across the Sahel.”

Still, as a political solution remains unclear, there is a clear and urgent need for humanitarian as well as technical assistance in Mali. Meanwhile, the situation in Mali is receiving increasing counter-terrorism attention, as Western powers, particularly the United States, have in recent weeks strongly suggested that terror groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are making inroads in the Malian chaos.

“I don’t agree that Mali is going to detract attention from the Sahel,” Joel Charny, vice-president for humanitarian policy and practice with InterAction, a network of U.S. civil-society organisations, told IPS.

“Rather, over the next year there’s a real concern as to whether we’re going to approach Mali as a security versus humanitarian problem. Are we going to start seeing U.S. drone attacks in Mali? If so, that will make it much harder to do humanitarian work there.”

Last week, InterAction announced that its members were pledging more than a billion dollars towards food security and nutrition, including in the Sahel.

“We know that in a situation like the Sahel you have to do both – there has to be an ability to respond to save lives, but you can try to respond in ways that enable communities to be stronger and able to resist shock in the medium term,” Charny says.

“But will 2013 be that much different from, say, five years ago – will next year be especially critical? Maybe and maybe not. The point is we need to redouble our efforts to work in the Sahel in a way that allows people to care for themselves.”

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