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Brussels, 11 April 2012

How the European Commission is responding to the Sahel food crisis

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

This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world today.

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 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 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 has a bigger impact in most countries of the Sahel region, including the northern zones of some coastal countries in West Africa. The number of the affected people is 15.5 million (people who lack the recommended daily calorie intake of 2100 Kcal/person). Of those, 8 million people are in need of emergency assistance now.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better: while already suffering from drought, the Sahel is entering the annual lean season and the next possible harvest is months away. It is possible that the number of people in need of assistance may double before the next harvest.

Root causes

The difficulties to secure adequate food supply and decent income in the Sahel 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. In result, food insecurity in the Sahel is primarily a matter of income and not production.

  • 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.

  • Conflict and insecurity triggered by the conflict in Libya which sent hundreds of thousands of migrant workers fleeing back to their countries of origin in the Sahel, ending the much needed remittances. In addition, the recent conflict in Mali has caused massive displacement which affects some of the most food insecure areas of northern Mali and the neighbouring countries.

The new acute food crisis takes place in a context of widespread poverty and insecurity – this 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.

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

A crisis both recurrent and acute, the Sahel requires a combination of immediate response to help the people in need and a long-term strategy to reduce the chronic risks of food insecurity and strengthen resilience.

The European Union has been helping the region for more than 30 years, delivering humanitarian and development aid. Throughout 2011, considered a normal year following a very good harvest, 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

Thanks to its long-established humanitarian presence in the region, the European Commission has reacted to the emergency early and substantially, thus helping to delay its spread and save lives.

The Commission's crisis response strategy is coordinated among humanitarian and development aid agencies and national governments. It has three phases:

  • The "mitigation and preparedness" phase took place between November 2011 and February 2012. Thanks to the constant presence of humanitarian experts from the Commission in the field, the risks of a major food crisis were identified in the autumn of 2011. The Commission heeded the early warning signs and increased its humanitarian support in the region on several occasions in the last few months.

  • We are currently in the "emergency response" phase, expected to last until the next harvest (September 2012).

  • The "recovery and resilience-building" phase will follow.

The Commission has allocated €287 million1 of aid to respond to emergency food needs and address acute malnutrition. With this funding, the Commission expects to reach approximately 6.3 million people – a substantial contribution to meeting the overall needs. Further generous humanitarian support to the victims of the Sahel food crisis is given by EU member states.

At present, the following operations support the people in the Sahel who are most vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition:

  • 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. These operations (ran together with the World Food Programme) provide assistance to a million children and 500,000 pregnant and breast-feeding women.

  • 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.

  • Most recently, the Commission allocated humanitarian assistance to help the populations displaced by the conflict in northern Mali, who were already suffering from the food crisis and whose displacement has boosted the emergency needs in the region.

    The Commission has focused its aid on early action because it is both more efficient and more effective. First, the chance of saving a child's life are far greater when it is moderately malnourished than when it falls victim to severe acute malnutrition, which can kill or cause life-long physical and mental damage. Second, early intervention is more cost-effective: treating a severely malnourished child costs €100, while threading a moderately malnourished one costs €20.

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)

Meanwhile, the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Kristalina Georgieva, has engaged in relentless advocacy to attract more attention to the Sahel crisis, focusing both on other donors and on European civil society (most notably, through the Football Against Hunger campaign).

The EU is committed to helping the people of the Sahel not only go through the current crisis, but also avoid similar emergencies in the future and break the cycle of chronic food shortages. To improve food security in the region, the Commission ensures a close synergy and continuity between its humanitarian/crisis response and its development aid departments.

The long-term EU response

To stimulate development and build resilience, 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 increased its humanitarian action with an additional €164.5 million in development support. 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: €34 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 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.

1 :

€123.5 million from its humanitarian aid budget and €164.5 from its development budget (the European Development Fund and the Food Security Thematic Programme)

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