Underfunded response adds stress to Sahel food crisis
Washington: Refugees International (RI) is disturbed by the meager international response to the recent influx of Malian refugees into neighboring countries. In a report released today, Malian Refugees: Underfunded Response Adds Stress to Sahel Food Crisis, RI reveals that aid providers are struggling to provide even the most basic assistance. It also warns that changes in population and climate could deepen regional food insecurity in the coming years, making future crises unavoidable.
Despite ongoing appeals, donor countries have only given 13 percent of the funds required to assist hundreds of thousands of displaced Malians, many of whom have sought refuge in neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania. This dramatic shortfall is being felt on the ground.
"Aid agencies are trying to make sure that refugees have access to the basics: food, water, health, and shelter. But resources are being stretched thin and the challenges will only increase with the arrival of the rainy season," Mark Yarnell, an RI advocate who traveled to Burkina Faso and Niger last month.
The areas where refugees are clustered are among the world's poorest and have been hard hit by a food and nutrition crisis that has affected 18 million people across the Sahel. The recent influx of conflict refugees from Mali is compounding the situation.
"The Sahel's extreme poverty and booming population have long meant food scarcity," said Alice Thomas, RI's Climate Displacement Program Manager. "Climate change and environmental degradation are adding even more stress. Going forward, humanitarian emergencies will become more and more frequent if the underlying problems are not addressed."
RI found that aid agencies' attempts to reverse this trend by building the resiliency of vulnerable populations to climate variability are not occurring on a scale or within the timeframes necessary to overcome countervailing pressures.
"This region has simply not been a priority for Western donors, and it shows." Ms. Thomas added. "Talking about resilience won't prevent future starvation and displacement. Only a much deeper, longer-term financial commitment to the Sahel can do that."
- Developing a Long-term Strategy for the Sahel
The crisis in Mali cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be seen in the context of the broader challenges facing the countries of the Sahel. The eruption of violence in Mali has exacerbated stress and placed additional burdens not only on populations that were extremely vulnerable to begin with, but also on national governments struggling to face a litany of other challenges.
A concern expressed by many agencies and NGOs is the failure of donors to address the underlying, systemic problems facing the Sahel, including chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty, environmental degradation, population growth, and political instability. Humanitarian funding is important, of course, in terms of both early interventions and providing life-saving assistance. During the most recent food crisis, smart, well-timed, and well-targeted interventions by both national governments and aid agencies proved effective in mitigating the situation (e.g., cash-for-work programs followed by cash distribution during the planting season; blanket and supplementary feeding programs). Yet, there was a strong sense that more and more frequently, short-term humanitarian assistance was being used as a band aid to patch up larger, deeper development gaps. As one agency staff put it: “We find ourselves in a situation where we are relying more frequently on emergency aid. Prevention is not happening, and with population doubling every 20 years, we are fighting a losing battle.”
The recurrence of humanitarian emergencies in the Sahel (and elsewhere) have led many to call for increased funding to help vulnerable populations increase their “resilience” – in other words, their ability to withstand and recover from recurrent droughts, food shortages, high prices, and other “shocks.” With climate change likely to increase the frequency and force of droughts, desertification, floods, and other climate-related events in the Sahel, many donors and NGOs see increased resiliency as an important solution.
However, in order to be effective, resiliency programs must be implemented at a scale and within timeframes sufficient to overcome the countervailing pressures of climate change, environmental degradation, and population growth. Some NGOs with whom RI spoke said that in certain communities, “resiliency” projects such as building water catchments or measures to increase soil productivity have proved effective. But others felt that these types of projects are neither new nor innovative in a game-changing way. Part of the problem may stem from the fact that funding for resiliency programs often comes from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), which is responsible for implementing disaster risk reduction programs. The short time frames for OFDA programming, however, are not suitable for the types of multi-year programs that are necessary to make resiliency effective.
Resiliency programs must be scaled up and effectively linked to longer-term development assistance. Moreover, while programs to increase agricultural output are no doubt essential to address food insecurity, they must be coupled with more comprehensive strategies aimed at supporting other livelihoods, including pastoralism, and access to basic services like education, healthcare, child nutrition, and family planning. This will require more direct budgetary support to national governments, something the U.S. must be willing to commit to on a larger scale.
The international community has long ignored the chronic issues facing the Sahel region. As one donor government official noted, “[we] accept chronic levels of food insecurity in the Sahel because that is what is ‘normal.’ But what level of suffering can we honestly consider normal?” The U.S., the EU, and other major donors must develop a comprehensive assistance strategy for the Sahel that includes long-term assistance to governments to address the threats that food insecurity and climate change present.
* Alice Thomas and Mark Yarnell traveled to Burkina Faso and Niger to assess the situation of Malian refugees in May 2012.