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Brussels, 23 March 2012

The European Commission's response to the food crisis and long-term food insecurity in the Sahel region of Africa

1. How big is the food crisis in the Sahel in 2012?

The Sahel region of Western Africa suffers from chronic food insecurity; this has triggered several food crises in the last decade, due either to national under-production, increase of food prices on international markets or local agricultural over-production which causes rapid price fluctuations. On top of this, localised areas are constantly suffering from food insecurity. In the countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) acute malnutrition rates are persistently above the internationally recognized alert threshold of 10% Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate. An estimated 226,000 children die because of malnutrition or directly related causes every year, whether or not there is a crisis.

The 2012 crisis is expected to have a bigger impact in a large number of countries across the Sahel region, including the northern zones of some coastal countries in West Africa. The European Commission's humanitarian aid Directorate General estimates that 15 million people are currently at risk (i.e. not be able to consume the recommended daily calorie intake of 2100 Kcal/person).

It is clear that the "lean season" (normally from April-May to September each year) will be very difficult for the most vulnerable populations. It has already started in some areas and countries, and for the Sahel’s pastoralist populations.

Root causes

The difficulties to secure adequate food supply and decent income in th Sahel region are due to:

  • Climate change and ecosystem degradation increase the unpredictability of rainfall.

  • Population growth is among the highest in the world (on average, the population of the Sahel doubles every 25 years). This increases pressure on natural resources and food supply.

  • Chronic poverty. The Sahel states rank at the bottom of the 2011 UN Human Development Index (Niger ranks 186, Burkina Faso 181, Chad 183, Mali 175 and Mauritania 159 out of the 187 countries listed).

  • Regional economic disparity (between Sahel countries and coastal countries) and low resistance to external economic shocks (e.g. the food price crisis of 2008) contribute significantly to the fragility of the Sahel. As a result, food insecurity in the Sahel is primarily a matter of income and not production. For example, Senegal, which imports nearly half of its food consumption needs, is less food insecure than Niger. As another example, widespread lack of economic access to basic healthcare contributes substantially to malnutrition among children under five and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

  • Weakness of public finances and national institutions in some countries hampers adequate responses to the increasing frequency of crises that affects the region. However, large-scale funding by donors, including the European Commission, has brought improvements in recent years.

The evolution of a new acute food crisis in a context of widespread poverty means that the poorest households have little opportunity to recover and build resilience. Even in a non-crisis year, they already struggle to cover basic food needs. This year the depletion of their few productive assets and livestock is compounded by high levels of indebtedness for many.

Another aggravating factor is the return of hundreds of thousands of people following the Libya crisis and the end to substantial and important remittances that had been provided by former migrant workers. The global context of high and volatile food prices is also having a painful effect on local markets in West Africa.

2. What is the European response to the food and nutrition crisis?

The recurrent nature of the crisis in the Sahel and the ongoing emergency call both for an immediate response to help the people in needand for a structural and long-term strategy to reduce the chronic risks of food security and strengthen resilience.

The EU has been present in the region for more than 30 years, delivering humanitarian as well as development aid. Throughout 2011, considered a normal year following a very good harvest, it is estimated that the Commission's humanitarian funding has helped treat over 200,000 of the estimated 550,000 malnourished children who received treatment from Mauritania to Chad.

Humanitarian assistance

Today, the Commission is also acting to help the most vulnerable populations in the countries worst affected by food and nutrition crises. To reinforce the capacities of the countries to cope with the present situation, the EU has adopted a three-phased approach based on close coordination between international humanitarian and development aid agencies and national governments.

The main phases and their timeframe for the 2012 crisis are 'mitigation and preparedness' (November 2011 – February 2012), 'emergency response' (March – September 2012) and ‘recovery/resilience building’ (after September 2012).

The Commission has intervened at the first signs of a new food crisis in 2011, detected early thanks to its humanitarian experts’ monitoring on the ground. A number of projects are already contributing to quick relief to the most affected populations and to the fight against malnutrition in the region. The Commission has allocated a total of €123.5 million of humanitarian aid to respond to emergency food-security needs and address acute malnutrition. The goal is to try and avert an even bigger crisis and to prepare the most vulnerable for the impending 'lean season'.

The Commission’s humanitarian assistance is recently in the emergency response phase of this crisis. From the beginning of the 'lean season' it will be ready to support the most vulnerable populations through:

  • Blanket feeding operations (i.e. covering all children from six to 24 months old and pregnant and breastfeeding women) with nutrition supplements in areas most affected by food deficits and high malnutrition.

  • Reinforcing existing nutrition treatment activities such as those to treat acute malnutrition in children under five years of age.

  • Continuous support to markets to ensure availability of food in remote areas.

  • Support to pastoralist communities to ensure availability of fodder in markets.

  • Support for the 2012/2013 cropping season through organisation of input fairs, targeted cash transfers and/or direct input distribution.

  • Cash and voucher transfers: affected populations are given money or vouchers either unconditionally or in return for work with which that they can get food for themselves. This type of intervention adds value by boosting local economies rather than weakening them as massive food distributions often risk doing.

  • Targeted food assistance to the most vulnerable households.

Once the Sahel is through the peak of the crisis, the recovery and resilience building phase will begin. It aims to:

  • Protect/restore productive assets of the most vulnerable

  • Reduce under-nutrition of children

  • Support/improve capacity of public and private stakeholders (policies, early warning systems, market functioning, safety nets)

  • Protect/restore ecosystems (sustainable agriculture, water management)

Elements of the long-term EU response

In addition to humanitarian support, the EU is operating development programmes, funded through the EU budget and the European Development Fund. Projects for over €200 million are currently ongoing or planned in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad (see list of projects).

Due to the aggravation of the food crisis the European Commission has decided to allocate an additional €164.5 million. It will be divided between six countries in the West Africa region as follows:

  • Mauritania: €13 million

  • Burkina Faso: €17 million

  • Mali: €15 million

  • Niger: €42.5 million

  • Chad: €35 million

  • Senegal: €5 million

  • West African regional initiatives: €38 million

A large part of this additional allocation will be implemented by international organisations or NGOs. Niger's allocation will be channelled by the National Mechanism to the prevention and the management of food crises (Dispositif national pour la prévention et la gestion des crises alimentaires). This type of support will relieve already fragile budgetary situations and enable governments to subsidise food and input (such as seeds and fertilizers) for the next season. This ensures government ownership and coordination of the aid.

The EU will continue and intensify the work it has been carrying out in the region: strengthening resilience, working on the root causes of malnutrition, improving the functioning of regional markets, and increasing the regional and national capacity to reduce the risks of disasters.

3. Examples of ongoing and planned projects:

  • In Burkina Faso, the EU contributes to helping populations that have been affected by natural disasters (droughts and floods) and by the rise in food prices. The EU also provides support to strengthen national mechanisms and structures responsible for food security: one of the projects currently implemented contributes to the functioning of the national food security and nutrition information system and to the replenishment of the food security stock. The EU will start to implement an additional €25 million in 2012 to improve the food security and nutrition situation in the long term. A number of actions are foreseen that aim to increase the production capacity of farmers, strengthen the capacity of national actors to prevent and manage food crisis effectively, and promote good practices for better food access and nutrition.

One of them has helped farmers in two villages to increase their production of seeds from 27 to 347 tons. 30 harvesting machines were provided to local collectives in this project, and around 2000 people were trained on production, harvesting and treatment of seeds. In addition, storage facilities were built, as well as 158 wells that facilitate irrigation.

  • In Mali, in the framework of the "Programme d'Appui à la Sécurité Alimentaire" (PASA Mali), a number or projects are implemented in order to prevent and fight malnutrition. PASA, which is carried out by NGOs, supports the most vulnerable members of the population. Since 2006, a total of 22 projects have been realised. The number of direct beneficiaries is about 2.3 million, with a focus on children under the age of five and women of reproduction age. Concrete examples of projects include nutritional knowledge training, irrigation and anti-erosion measures.

An additional €5 million of funding to this project will enabled it to cover the North of Mali. It will be implemented in cooperation with UNICEF through actions such as the promotion of breastfeeding (to ensure babies' healthy development) and the reinforcement of national institutional capacities for better monitoring of the nutrition situation.

  • In Niger, the EU is supporting (through sector budget support and projects) the improvement of nutrition and food security situations. This includes institutional and direct financial support to the existing national mechanism to prevent and manage food crises. €15 million were channelled in 2010 during the lean season to this national mechanism. The number of beneficiaries is estimated at about 700,000 people. An additional €2.5 million was paid in December 2011 at the beginning of the crisis. Another disbursement is foreseen in the first semester 2012 (€40 million). Concrete project example: The ASAPI (Appui à la sécurité alimentaire par petite irrigation) project is working on improving food security in 56 communities. Some of the expected results include: construction or rehabilitation of 273 km of rural roads to connect regions of agricultural production to markets; better access to drinking water for 22,500 people; better irrigation for 473 hectares of agricultural land; protection against erosion on a surface of more than 15,000 hectares.

  • In Mauritania, a number of actions have been undertaken, including direct cash payments ('cash transfers') to its most vulnerable populations to fight against poverty and improve the nutrition situation. These cash transfer actions (for a total amount of €2 million) are pilot projects specifically targeting pregnant women or households with children younger than five or infants under the age of two in the region of Gorgol.

  • In Chad, EU interventions for €41 million address food security as part of rural development programmes. By better managing natural resources, an increase in communities' production means and incomes should be achieved. The support aims at reinforcing the resilience of the population and preparing them better for external shocks. For instance, a cattle project in northern Chad is supported with €3 million of EU funding. Its objectives are to protect the cattle and the purchasing power of communities during the lean season with income generating activities, grains banks, water point rehabilitation, veterinary care, trainings, awareness campaigns and institutional support to carry out a national survey. The EU also contributes (with approximately €2 million) to the improvement of the information system on food security in Chad.

In the long run, the 11th European Development Fund and the Food Security Thematic Programme will continue the EU's support to building resilience and strengthening the capacity of the region to prevent future food crises.

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