Humanitarian Aid in Sahelian Cities: Lessons for Long-Term Food Security

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed tens of millions into food insecurity, causing the most severe global food security crisis in at least a decade and capturing headlines in the United States and around the world. Where populations were food insecure pre-Covid-19, hunger is deeper entrenched. Take the Central Sahel, for example: across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, over 2.4 million people suffered food insecurity in September 2019. This figure had increased by five million—over a threefold increase—to 7.4 million by September 2020. Political instability, violence, and climate change drive hunger in the region, while Covid-19 threatens supply chains and humanitarian access.

As aid agencies in the Central Sahel adjust to the realities of Covid-19, they are also learning to operate in vastly different demographic landscapes, including cities. Most of each Central Sahel country’s population remains rural, so the bulk of aid agencies’ interventions rightly target rural populations. For smallholder farmers, for example, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) provides training and equipment to farmers’ groups to improve marketing and reduce food loss. In the lean season, the WFP provides food and cash transfers and interventions specifically targeted to prevent malnutrition. As of September 2020, the WFP had helped rehabilitate land, build feeder roads, control erosion, and construct irrigation infrastructure in Mali, and supported ecosystem rehabilitation in rural Niger.

But the WFP has been quick to recognize the impact of Covid-19 on urban populations, too, and responded accordingly. By October 2020, the WFP had reached 8,700 urban households in Niger with cash assistance, noting that “urban food insecurity is expected to continue to influence operations in 2021.” The WFP’s recognition of food insecurity among urban residents dates at least as far back as 2002; looking ahead, the WFP is encouraging innovations to address food insecurity specifically in urban areas. The WFP is well positioned to do this: its toolkit already includes interventions appropriate to urban populations like school feeding programs; integrated nutrition packages for women and children; and cash transfers—via bank notes, mobile money, debit cards, or otherwise—that empower consumers with choice over food purchases and boost local markets.

“The world’s rural population is expected to peak in 2021 and decline thereafter, with all the world’s future population growth happening in cities.”

Other humanitarian actors are learning to operate in cities, too. Mercy Corps is partnering with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Youth Connect program, supported by the USAID Bridge Project, to create jobs for youth in Burkina Faso and Niger—in urban and rural areas both. Youth Connect aims to address drivers of the violent extremism in the Sahel that is itself a driver of the region’s acute food insecurity. This is not Mercy Corps’ first foray into urban settings: Recognizing that Niger’s urban populations were worst affected by the 2007-08 global food-price crisis, Mercy Corps partnered with USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance on cash-for-work activities and investments in peri-urban dairy cooperatives to increase incomes and nutrition among urban residents, with positive results for beneficiaries. Similarly, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has invested in water and sanitation (WASH) in urban Ghana, with positive effects for food security, given the many connections between water and food security at the household level. CRS’s Vision 2030 Clean Water Strategy considers increasing urbanization and expands CRS’s work on WASH to secondary cities and informal urban settlements.

The food security community describes needs and responses across a spectrum that ranges from emergencies, where interventions address populations’ immediate needs, to long term, where responses aim to improve food security and nutrition for years. The world’s rural population is expected to peak in 2021 and decline thereafter, with all the world’s future population growth happening in cities, the majority in Africa and Asia. Particularly in the context of Covid-19, the humanitarian aid community recognizes the imperative of addressing food-insecurity needs in rural and urban areas.

At the same time, organizations aiming to improve food security in the long term continue to operate in a paradigm that defines food insecurity as a rural problem with solutions rooted in agriculture. Certainly, increasing the productivity of agriculture while making the most efficient use of natural resources is one of this century’s most urgent challenges, particularly in the face of climate change. The UN secretary-general will host the first-ever Food Systems Summit in recognition of this imperative and acknowledging the importance of food systems to achieving all Sustainable Development Goals. Still, those aiming to improve food security in the long term should tailor solutions to urban residents or risk further setbacks against Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Recent analyses show similar rates of some types of malnutrition between the urban and rural poor in West Africa; in some instances, malnutrition rates are considerably higher among the urban poor. We can expect these trends to continue: due to the effects of Covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that the number of poor people could increase by 15 percent in rural areas but by 44 percent in urban areas.

Humanitarian aid organizations are adapting to urban contexts, and target city residents as their direct beneficiaries. Improved agricultural systems are part of the solution to urban food insecurity—but the urban poor will require a different set of interventions. The long-term food security community should, like their humanitarian counterparts, devise solutions to hunger and malnutrition in cities, with city residents as direct beneficiaries. Urban residents’ needs should be met through emergency assistance and long-term interventions—in the Sahel and everywhere food insecurity persists.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

This commentary was produced in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Caitlin Welsh
Director, Global Food and Water Security Program