Misunderstood: Getting the Right Response to Food Shortages in the Sahel

A bleak narrative of 16 million plus people on the brink of starvation in West Africa’s Sahel region has captured headlines. But the brewing food crisis, spanning Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, has been overstated, and the headlines fail to identify the core causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in the region.

It’s true that the expanse of the Sahel is a food insecure area. But not all insecure regions, even at this level, can be classified as potential famines due to a lack of food. The international community has been and seems again to be content to provide massive amounts of food aid and deal with the symptoms rather than address the underlying causes of this chronic crisis: lack of community resilience. The real crisis in the Sahel is one of persistently high rates of acute malnutrition, an issue that has affected the region’s residents for decades and cannot be addressed with short-term emergency food assistance alone. It requires a more robust response.

Words matter. Even calls for food aid are driving up prices and detracting attention from these core issues.

It’s true that the picture is not a good one: poor harvest, higher food prices, and malnutrition are in fact evident in certain areas. Conflict, displacement, and a drop off in remittances have been noted as signs of an impending crisis. Vulnerable populations require food and other immediate assistance. But the current narrative places an overemphasis on food aid. While all experts agree that some targeted food assistance, mostly nutritional supplements, is required, food aid should be minimized, realizing that it plays only a palliative role and could disrupt markets. More to the point, food aid fails to address the fundamental problems. The media portrayal of shortages and starvation if food aid is not immediately provided is not only misleading but unhelpful.

What the articles do not say is that agricultural production in the Sahel is on the increase and that markets are functioning. The Sahel has experienced not just sizeable harvests but exceptional ones in 2008 and 2010. Even though the 2011 harvest was below the bumper crop of 2010, it still exceeded the region’s average production levels. While inadequate rainfall distribution did delay harvests and create some production deficits, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) estimates that this year’s production will be sufficient, even before food aid, to meet the region’s food requirements.

The more pressing issue, then, is not one of low production or failing markets, but a resilience deficit. Questions surrounding the gaps in resilience are not new. These are the same questions that loomed during the 2005 crisis. During that crisis, the international community focused on food distribution, a decision that disrupted local markets and failed to prevent what we’re seeing today. The causes of this resilience deficit range from matters of cultural practice (including certain infant care practices) to larger development challenges, including lack of access to safe water, inadequate health care and nutrition, and poor sanitation. A 2006–2007 UNICEF survey following the 2005 crisis verified these trends, revealing acute malnutrition rates that routinely exceeded emergency thresholds. The region’s levels of acute malnutrition are persistently anchored at 9 percent or higher, with fluctuations up to 15 percent during poor harvests. Chronic malnutrition in children is region wide, affecting an estimated 40 percent of those under five years of age. In fact, the survey identified the Sahel as having some of the highest child mortality rates and the highest acute malnutrition rates for children in the world, trends that have been true since the 1990s. The data also shows that malnutrition rates are not related to general food availabilities, food price fluctuations, or market interruptions and that child malnutrition is not limited to the most food insecure areas of the Sahel. Placing the current situation in this context demonstrates that it is not an aberration but a larger development challenge.

Even West African regional organizations like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Comité permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS) have suggested that solicitations for food aid could be counterproductive and ineffective. Food security initiatives around the world base their strategies on cooperation with host countries, and regional organizations who must be engaged for the long-term push to resolve the lack of resilience. The call by some stakeholders for a food heavy response undermines this critical pillar of development.

The situation in the Sahel is about chronic food insecurity that requires a focus on long-term food production and malnutrition rates. The classification of an emergency, therefore, looks very different in the Sahel than in other parts of the world.

The source of the overcompensation in the Sahel is clear. The international community was severely criticized last year for what were deemed inadequate efforts to combat the drought/famine in Somalia and the greater Horn of Africa region, particularly for its delayed response. But the Sahel is not Somalia. And the Sahel is not facing a famine. Responding late to one crisis and responding inappropriately to the next suggests that something is broken. Something is wrong with the international response networks that have been designed to facilitate appropriate responses to food emergencies around the world. The international community hesitated when FEWSNET warned in 2010 of a famine in Somalia, and tens of thousands suffered. Today, despite cautions by FEWSNET and others, donors and nongovernmental organizations are again considering alternative tactics that will not resolve the problem. The challenges of the Sahel suggest the time is right for a reexamination of how the international community makes assistance decisions about the world’s food crises.

Ambassador William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Farha Tahir is program coordinator and research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

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).

© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

William J. Garvelink

Farha Tahir