06/20/2012 09:22 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Fighting Turns Food Crisis Into Humanitarian Catastrophe: What We Can Do

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

Add conflict to food crisis and what do you get? A catastrophic food crisis. This is the heartbreaking reality for hundreds of thousands of Malian nationals. By March, 75,000 Malians had fled the violence in the wake of the nation's coup d'état. That number has since quadrupled. With virtually no food stocks available, more than 300,000 people have left the northern part of the country in search of food and safety. More than 150,000 of them have become internally displaced, seeking to survive in other parts of the country. Another 170,000 have fled the country altogether, taking on refugee status in neighboring Sahel nations like Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania.

The problem with this, of course, is that food is just as scarce in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. "The dramatic rise of refugees from Mali is worsening the food situation in the entire Sahel," said Rafael de Prado, Action Against Hunger Desk Officer. "This is a crisis upon a crisis."

What a troubling state of affairs that a Malian family seeking refuge from the civil unrest and hunger in their homeland can escape the former but not the latter. It's a sobering thought for us on this World Refugee Day -- that this new wave of refugees is trading in two crises for the insufficient "improvement" of one.

So what's the way forward? For starters, there are the expected but critical interventions. Training local staff to assess refugees' nutritional status and detect acute malnutrition in children under five. Providing a regimen of ready-to-use therapeutic foods to as many children as possible. Improving water and sanitation conditions. But while all this is necessary to prevent the loss of life, it's not sufficient to end the crisis. When we consider the scope of the problem, with both resident populations and refugees in dire need, it quickly becomes apparent that the status quo is far from enough.

Consider what's going on east of Mali. According to The Cash Learning Partnership, or CaLP, one third of Niger's population is food insecure. Five million people , many of them living in urban areas, are estimated to be facing a crisis caused by a combination of failed rains, bad harvests, and pest attacks. Add in the 2,000 vulnerable refugees arriving from Mali every week in the northern part of the country. With so many people flooding the aid system, even the most sophisticated and organized agencies can find it impossible to keep up with the limited funding available. That's why newer, faster, and more flexible modes of aid have become critical.

It's become apparent that one of the most efficient, cost-effective, and impactful interventions that we and our NGO colleagues have to offer is one that may come as a surprise to some. It's cash. Although it may seem counterintuitive in the context of a humanitarian emergency, money can be one of the most effective mediums for saving lives during emergencies like the one unfolding across the Sahel. Cash-based interventions have proven to be one of the most efficient means of alleviating nutritional crises and bolstering vulnerable communities, and in Niger and neighboring Sahel countries hosting Malian refugees our teams are overseeing a range of cash-for-work programs, food voucher initiatives and direct cash transfers to help thousands of families weather the crisis.

The use of cash-based interventions is a relatively new development in the humanitarian field, but the practice is gaining traction because it offers significant advantages over more traditional forms of aid such as food donations. Cash can support local and regional markets by providing vulnerable families with disposable income (ensuring local market demand) and can spur economic activity to help counter the crisis. Strengthening markets is essential for dealing with an influx of people, especially at-risk refugees.

We find ourselves in a critical moment to scale up cash-based interventions. It's imperative that we get it right, not just for Malian refugees and people throughout the Sahel, but also for future populations and their food emergencies. Action Against Hunger has found that food crises are becoming less tied to food availability. Instead, they're increasingly associated with problems of economic access to food that's readily available in local markets. Looking ahead, cash may not be king in the relief community -- but it will be critical. Now is the time for funders -- from individuals to large foundations and everyone in between -- and NGOs to make a commitment to seeing cash as a key agent of change.

To learn more about cash-based interventions, visit the Cash Learning Partnership, a humanitarian organization consortium of which Action Against Hunger is proud to be a part. You can also hear our Technical Director, Silke Pietzsch, talk about cash interventions in a South South News video.