Sahel food crisis: how do we prevent the next one?

17 Jul 2012   |   Blog   |   Emergency Relief   |   Africa

Tags:  sustainable development, food security, agriculture, drought, Sahel   |   No comments

Photo Credit: Caritas Internationalis

By Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Head of Caritas Internationalis Delegation to the UN in Geneva.

On 2 July 2012, Caritas Internationalis and Oxfam held an important side event on human rights in the context of the food crisis in the Sahel region of Africa; it was held at the Palais des Nations in conjunction with the 20th Session of the UN Human Rights. 

For those not familiar with the issue, Sahel is a vast area with semi-desert characteristics that extends from the Atlanic to the Red Sea and includes 12 African Countries. It has been facing a severe food security crisis since the beginning of the year.

A number of factors have contributed to the deteriorating situation in the region. A severe drought followed by erratic rains has ruined this year’s cereal crop – a decrease in production by 26 percent – causing prices to rise unexpectedly. Social and political unrest in Libya, Mali and Ivory Coast, has slowed down trade and has made cross-border areas insecure.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) the number of those facing a food crisis is over 18 million, among which there are at least 3 million children at risk of malnutrition.

Governments, agencies and NGOs now feel there is an urgent need for action and Caritas believes that, in order to respect and promote the human rights of those directly affected by this crisis, we must all work together and share what we have learned from past crises. Through such a rights-focused approach, we can help prevent future crises of this type and build the resilience of local communities rather than be content with responding to this as one of a series of inevitable natural disasters.

In words of welcome to those in attendance, I stressed the fact that this time a more collaborative approach is essential. We must view the affected populations not simply as people in need of urgent and humanitarian intervention, but as individuals with rights: rights to food, water, sanitation and employment.

As Asako Hattori from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) added later on in the session, we must ensure active and meaningful participation by “rights-holders” in decision-making. Moreover, in conformity with law and policies, governments and civil society must be held accountable for their actions. By addressing the root causes of chronic food insecurity, we will provide the people of Sahel with tools that can enable them to prevent crises like this one in the future.

A more collaborative approach is essential. We must view the affected populations not simply as people in need of urgent and humanitarian intervention, but as individuals with rights: rights to food, water, sanitation and employment.

I was exceptionally pleased to see experts from both the humanitarian and the human rights fields finally sitting in the same room sharing a common goal. Too often, the different structures of the United Nations take a “silo” approach to the same crisis. Finally, I thought, we are adopting that all-important collaborative approach to problem solving which will lead to sharing of knowledge and experience, respect for individual and community-based human rights, and allow us to move forward.

In the course of the session we had the honour of hearing the words of His Excellency Ambassador Adani Illo, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Niger to the UN in Geneva. In greeting me before the session, he personally thanked Caritas for all its assistance in his country and in the region. His account of the situation in Sahel was alarming. The crisis in his country is severe, and the situation is aggravated by a vast flow of return migration from Libya. More than 260,000 people have returned to Niger since the civil war; all are in need humanitarian assistance, as are the host families helping them under a Government initiative called 3N (‘Nigerians Nourish Nigerians’). 

The authorities in Niger are concerned that this crisis, made worse by a general lack of confidence in the economic growth, will favour the infiltration of radical groups, similar to al-Qaeda. They fear the country would become a stronghold for jihadists and drug traders and even pose a serious terrorist threat to Africa and the Mediterranean.

According to FAO, “the best response to this emergency is to build resilience.” The Director of the FAO Liaison Office to the UN, Mr Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, outlined the importance of a solid strategy for agricultural growth for reducing the region’s vulnerability to future food crises. Farmers should have access to seeds and fertilizers, as well as cash (through, for example, cash for work programmes and cash transfers). Farmers must increase off-season crop production. Better support must be given to herders (animal feed, veterinary assistance and destocking support). Finally, it is important to provide integrated emergency nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable: women and children. Once again, the problem seems to be limited funding. The FAO estimates that, of the $103 million requested in 2012, $75 million remains to be found.

On a more positive note, Oxfam believes that today we are better prepared than in 2010. This is partly because the alarm was given four to five months earlier than in the past, partly because governments now understand better the impact of such crises. However, the root causes of economic instability are still to be addressed. Why are we facing yet another emergency? Is it because of inequality? Environmental degradation? Inadequate infrastructure? Or is it because farmers still don’t have the right to a piece of land and local governments are too weak to act? For Oxfam these are all factors that, if left unaddressed, will prevent the region from carrying out a successful agricultural growth strategy.

Caritas channels approximately €7.6 million in the Sahel cause every year. We too believe that support should be centred around building a more sustainable strategy of growth. First of all, we believe in building stronger communities by eradicating poverty. A stronger community is less vulnerable to shocks. In order to build stronger communities, people must be aware of their individual dignity and have recourse to assert those rights when they are not adequately protected.

The way forward is to work together [with] local communities as active participants rather than helpless people in need of urgent humanitarian intervention.

Better irrigation, stronger control over local markets and sufficient reserves for the vulnerable can only be achieved if farmers can rely on solid financial resources and have a sense of their God-given human dignity.

Fr. Isidore Ouedraogo, Director of Caritas Burkina Faso, reported during the meeting that, in additional to its advocacy activity on the Sahel, Caritas member organizations are engaged in sponsoring or supporting a number of projects in the region, including the building of water wells and latrines, environmental education in schools, and, together with UNICEF, a large-scale programme to fight malnutrition.

Personally, I considered the Caritas-Oxfam Side Event on the Sahel to be a major breakthrough since it assembled the combined experience and expertise of both human rights advocates and humanitarian assistance specialists who, through closer and more consistent sharing of lessons learned, could help to solve the present crisis in the Sahel and prevent future disasters in this region and in other parts of the world. I am most grateful to Floriana Polito, Humanitarian Policy Officer based at the Caritas Internationalis Delegation in Geneva, for planning and coordinating this event and to all the speakers who so generously shared their insights and recommendations.

In conclusion, I would say that the “take-home” learning from this side event is that the way forward is to work together towards a more sustainable growth plan – which sees local communities as active participants rather than helpless people in need of urgent humanitarian intervention.

Find out more about our work in West Africa on our West Africa Crisis Appeal page. 

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