03/08/2012 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In the Wake of the East Africa Crisis, Will Help Arrive in Time for the Sahel?

Last week, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg announced a contribution of $33 million to support food security, nutrition and short-term cash assistance efforts across the West African region of the Sahel, bringing USAID's total humanitarian assistance to the region to more than $270 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The announcement caused barely a ripple in the U.S. media, and many who heard the news may have even asked 'What crisis?' or 'What's the Sahel?' As aid organizations, it is our responsibility to issue and amplify calls to action to respond in the Sahel, and to broadcast the important message that coordinated action now will save lives and prevent costly interventions later -- and we have the evidence.

Right now, a series of factors -- including volatile spikes in food prices, failed harvests and cyclical drought -- have triggered widespread food shortages across the Sahel, according to the USAID Famine Early Warning System Network. Levels of malnutrition among children under five have already reached the internationally recognized emergency threshold of 15 percent in parts of many affected countries, which include Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania.

The world saw East Africa deteriorate into a catastrophic food crisis in mid 2011. But early warning signs were evident far earlier in the year. We know that suffering and malnutrition among children could have been significantly reduced if a large-scale response had been launched much earlier. Today, we are watching another crisis unfold before our eyes. In light of the inestimable cost of responding late to the East Africa emergency -- and mobilized by what we know already about the lifesaving impact of early intervention -- we cannot afford to wait to act until conditions reach crisis levels in the Sahel.


Cyclical crises in this region are, unfortunately, nothing new. Massive food shortages occurred in Niger in 2005, causing significant loss of life among children under five. Drought hit the region again in 2008 and most recently in 2009. But since the tragedy of 2005, early warning systems have been established in the region, similar to those that exist in East Africa. These systems monitor data such as fluctuations in food prices, rainfall levels, pest plagues, cereal production, the availability of food staples in the region and national food reserves.

The early warning systems for the Sahel are now signalling an escalating, large-scale crisis that threatens to leave 13 million people in need of emergency food assistance by April.

According to former United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, it would have cost $1 per day per child to prevent malnutrition in affected areas if international donors had launched an early response to the 2005 Niger food crisis. But the response came only when conditions deteriorated to near catastrophic levels, and by July 2005, huge numbers of children were severely malnourished, and it cost $80 per day to provide emergency therapeutic medical care per child. Prevention is not only better than cure, but also much less expensive.

In the very short-term, the international community must allocate greater support to screening and treating malnourished children. In the longer-term, the international community must invest in country-led programs that address the root causes of hunger and scale up nutrition interventions such as those outlined by the 2010 SUN movement launched, including agricultural assistance, sustainable food production, improved infant and young child feeding practices, social protection, health, water, hygiene and sanitation.


Concern has already seen the impact of responding early. In 2010, we launched an early emergency response prompted by early warning signs in Niger: the program integrated efforts to mitigate and prevent malnutrition among children under five with efforts to build the resilience of communities by distributing emergency cash to the most vulnerable, and distributing improved varieties of seeds with short harvest times to targeted villages. The program reached 650,000 people in Tahoua District, and delivered very promising indications of impact. In our program areas in 2010, rates of malnutrition did not reach the emergency threshold of 15 percent, and 80 percent of the targeted villages that were at risk of extreme food shortages enjoyed above average harvests in 2010.

Today, Concern has launched early interventions in both Niger and Chad. But work like this requires investment in order to achieve sustainable impact and scale.

While we recognize and applaud the generosity of donors such as USAID and the EU, there still remains a severe funding shortfall to deliver the humanitarian assistance required in the Sahel. There is also a 'vision gap' in terms of funding. Emergency grants often only cover short-term program needs (for periods of 12 to 18 months). Funding for disaster risk reduction and long-term recovery is fairly scarce. Yet, this long-term work is most effective in preventing emergencies and reducing their impact when they do occur.

Without strategic investment in integrated, long-term development programs and serious commitment at the global, national and local level for efforts to scale up nutrition, we will be limited to isolated examples of progress. The time for funding efforts to prevent hunger and emergencies among the most vulnerable is now. We literally cannot afford the cost of delaying our response until 13 million people's lives are at risk.