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Brussels, 19 July 2010

Questions and Answers on Sahel and Food Insecurity

The Sahel is a belt of mainly arid and semi-arid land that stretches across Africa from Cape Verde in the west to Sudan in the east, covering parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many of these countries are threatened by food insecurity, particularly Niger and Chad, whose governments have declared an emergency and asked for international assistance.

What are the underlying causes of the food crisis in Sahel?

The Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world. Access to clean water, food, education and health services is very limited. Extensive poverty and lack of infrastructure and basic services mean that large parts of the population are extremely vulnerable to external shocks such as climate change and high food prices.. The food crisis in the region has been deepening due to the shortfall in food production as a result of the erratic rains at the end of 2009. High food prices and a reduction of remittances sent home by expatriate worker are also contributing factors. For pastoralists and agro-pastoralists the 2009/2010 season has been particularly damaging to their livestock and crops, leaving them highly vulnerable to food insecurity.

How is this affecting the population?

Up to ten million people in the region require emergency assistance to survive through the current hunger period until the next harvest in November. A high percentage of these people are suffering from severe malnutrition. UNICEF estimate that 300,000 children under 5 years of age die every year in the Sahel from malnutrition and related causes. Malnutrition is the main cause of child mortality in the region. The growing numbers of displaced people are another major concern, as destroyed livelihoods lead many people from rural areas to seek work in urban areas and in neighbouring countries where jobs are equally scarce and wages equally low. In Niger alone it is estimated that 500,000 have been displaced due to the crisis.

What does the European Commission fund in the region in terms of humanitarian aid?

Since the last Sahel food crisis in 2005, the Commission's humanitarian aid Department (ECHO) has funded for a total 140 million euro a major multi-sector strategy to reduce acute malnutrition in the whole region. Over 1 million children have been treated in the last 5 years. Its permanent presence in the field, with offices in Niamey, Ouagadougou, Ndjamena and Dakar made it possible for its humanitarian experts to identify the risk of the current crisis already at the end of 2009. Its permanent and experienced presence on the ground and its ability to assess needs and operations has allowed the Commission to play a strategic role in the response to this crisis. Partners were encouraged to upscale activities to meet the challenge of the crisis and funding was made available quickly (the first crisis response allocation of 10 MEUR was done at end 2009). The Commission shared its expertise and information with other donors and encouraged greater international community coordination in response to the crisis. The active presence in the country of a great many humanitarian agencies financed by DG ECHO meant that action could be stepped up quickly to tackle the crisis.

How are the Commission's humanitarian funds being distributed?

The Commission's food assistance draws on previous experience and is based on a wider toolbox. One of the main lessons from 2005 is that early diagnosis and rapid treatment are essential. The funding will targeting the most vulnerable populations and will finance operations in the nutrition and health sectors, including short-term food assistance, the treatment of malnourished children, and livelihood support to pastoralist and nomadic populations. Funds are channelled through UN agencies, the Red Cross and non-governmental organisations.

Is this funding being used in the traditional way or have lessons been learned from previous crises?

It should be emphasised that the current food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel and in Niger is much more a problem of access to food rather than food availability. Food is available in the local markets albeit at a high price. Cash transfer and cash for work activities are therefore much more efficient and cost effective than food commodity imports. Traders will continue to provide food through the markets so long as there is liquidity to purchase it. Direct cash transfers to the beneficiaries in regular small monthly amounts help to stabilise market conditions and support small local food producers. It also helps to restore dignity to the beneficiaries and to encourage self-sufficiency. Both local and regional (Mali and Benin in particular have surplus production) purchases should be encouraged and funded.

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