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Chronic Crisis in the Sahel Calls for a New Approach

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It is the lean season in the Sahel, a spine of arid and dry lands that runs from Senegal to Chad in western Africa, and once again we are seeing the devastating images of children gaunt with hunger. This is a region that faces high childhood malnutrition and underdevelopment even under the best of circumstances so one poor harvest can push millions of the most vulnerable into severe risk. In the aftermath of poor rains, and with food prices stubbornly stuck on high since the food crisis of 2008, some 18.7 million people across eight affected countries in the Sahel are at risk of food insecurity this year alone. At least 8 million people are already in need of emergency assistance.

At USAID, we are determined to get ahead of these kinds of chronic crises. We know that millions of Africans living in the dry lands of the Horn and Sahel regions need new solutions. Last year, the worst drought in 60 years ravaged the Horn of Africa, driving 13.3 million people into crisis. And this summer, families in the Sahel are feeling the peril of depleting food supplies, high food prices, and rising malnutrition.

We can't prevent what appears to be increasing cycles of drought, but we can and are working to create better solutions and build greater resilience among the most vulnerable.

Every crisis is complex, and the Sahel is no exception. A regional drought has been overlaid with instability stemming from the coup in Mali and conflict in the northern part of that country where armed militant groups have forced the suspension of critical relief operations. More than 184,000 refugees have fled to communities in neighboring countries that are already deeply stressed from drought. Though still functioning, local and regional markets have been disrupted, driving food prices even higher. And as of mid-June, swarms of locusts from southern Algeria and Libya had arrived in northern Mali and Niger; now expected to move southward, these infestations could result in crop destruction exacerbating an already worsening situation.

In these cases of chronic crisis, recurring shocks erase development gains and set local populations back into urgent need over and over again. With many in the Sahel still struggling to recover from the region's last food crisis in 2010, they now face a new crisis of food access. Borrowing money to buy food or the seeds to plant this rainy season has the farmers of Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and their neighbors incurring amounts of debt that are crippling, and a vicious cycle of suffering persists.

We cannot and should not accept this course as inevitable. Through smarter programming and a coordinated response, we can help make these recurring shocks less devastating. To this end and so that our relief work enables greater growth, we are committed to doing business differently in four key ways:

1. Early action in response to early warning: Last fall, thanks to early warning systems, we saw signs of the tough lean season ahead for the Sahel. USAID began committing food commodities as early as November and, in February, I traveled to Niger and Burkina Faso to assess the worsening situation and identify programs that work firsthand. As of July 1, 2012, more than 74,000 metric tons of food has arrived in the region out of a total of approximately 107,000 metric tons purchased, the rest of which will arrive in the next 30 to 45 days. This food will reach approximately 3.2 million people. The U.S. commitment to a strong humanitarian response and helping those in need remains unwavering.

2. A smarter, targeted and market-sensitive humanitarian response: We are determined to ensure our assistance is building resilience even as we save lives. Because food markets are still functioning in the Sahel -- albeit at higher than normal prices -- our cash-based programs allow vulnerable families and communities to access locally available food and basic goods in addition to our in-kind food aid. Through food vouchers, cash transfers, and temporary work opportunities, we support local markets and develop land reclamation and sustainable agriculture practices even while responding to acute needs now. In addition to including new food products and efforts to strengthen nutrition, our emergency programs are helping families keep livestock healthy and alive, as cows, sheep and goats are tantamount to savings accounts for many pastoralist families. And we are focused especially on women, as we know they are key to their families' futures and to the health of their children.

3. More effectively connecting our relief and development programs: As we did in the Horn of Africa, we are bringing our relief and development teams together to identify ways to layer, integrate, and sequence programs with the goal of creating long term resilience. Later this month, I will return to the region to join colleagues in Dakar, Senegal who are leading our Sahel Joint Planning Cell (JPC), a comprehensive effort to connect our range of relief and development work in the field and in Washington to apply our humanitarian resources for the greatest good. Moreover, the JPC is working in lockstep with Feed the Future, President Obama's landmark initiative to increase food security by battling the root causes of poverty and undernutrition through increased investments in agriculture-led economic growth.

4. Working in partnership with the international community to support effective country-led plans: At a recent high-level meeting with the EU Commission in Brussels, along with other donor governments, U.N. agencies, regional institutions, and humanitarian and development aid organizations, we reaffirmed our commitment to helping communities in the Sahel improve their ability to withstand future emergencies by forming the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative-Sahel (AGIR-Sahel). This new partnership is linked to the Global Alliance for Action for Drought Resilience and Growth stood up together with international partners and African leaders in Nairobi this April with a focus on new country frameworks and mutual accountability.

The steps we are taking now are a direct result of the lessons we learned last year through our successful response to crisis in the Horn: that all tools must be applied in ways that are context-specific and cause no harm; that our impact multiplies tenfold when we work in close coordination with the international community and local leadership; and that to make the greatest difference, even during acute crisis, major donors from the humanitarian and development sectors must come together to identify causes of vulnerability to build resilience going forward.

Resilience programming can make a difference in the Sahel just as it has in the Horn. I have seen the effects firsthand in Burkina Faso, where USAID programs that have diversified livelihoods, introduced new seeds and highly nutritious crops, improved nutrition and increased access to water and irrigation have helped women farmers stand strong and feed their children even amidst drought.

With a total Fiscal Year 2012 commitment of more than $321.5 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance for drought-affected and conflict-displaced communities in the Sahel, we must use these resources in ways that both alleviate the dire situation at hand and lay the foundation for longstanding gains. Our mission to achieve real sustainable development -- and millions of livelihoods -- depends on it.