By Ambassador William J. Garvelink and Farha Tahir, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
A bleak narrative of 16 million people on the brink of starvation in West Africa’s Sahel region has captured headlines. But the brewing food crisis has been overstated, and the headlines fail to identify the core causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in the region.
The international community has been and seems again to be content to provide massive amounts of food aid and deal with the symptoms rather than address the underlying cause of this crisis: lack of community resilience. The real crisis in the Sahel is one of persistently high rates of acute malnutrition, an issue that has affected the region’s residents for decades and cannot be addressed with emergency food assistance alone.
It’s true that the picture is not a good one: poor harvest, higher food prices, and malnutrition are in fact evident in certain areas. While all experts agree that some targeted food assistance is required, food aid should be minimized, realizing that it plays only a palliative role and could disrupt markets. Food aid fails to address the fundamental problems.
Agricultural production in the Sahel is on the increase and markets are functioning. While inadequate rainfall distribution did delay harvests and create some production deficits, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) estimates that this year’s production will be sufficient to meet the region’s food requirements.
The more pressing issue is a resilience deficit, the same issue that loomed during the 2005 crisis when the international community focused on food distribution. That decision disrupted local markets and failed to prevent what we’re seeing today. The causes of this resilience deficit range from matters of cultural practice to larger development challenges, including lack of access to safe water, inadequate health care and nutrition, and poor sanitation. Chronic malnutrition in children is region wide, affecting an estimated 40 percent of those under five years of age. In fact, the Sahel has some of the highest child mortality rates and the highest child acute malnutrition rates in the world. Placing the current situation in this context demonstrates that it is not an aberration but a larger development challenge.
The situation in the Sahel is about chronic food insecurity that requires a focus on long-term food production and malnutrition rates. The classification of an emergency, therefore, looks very different in the Sahel than in other parts of the world.
The source of the overcompensation in the Sahel is clear. The international community was severely criticized last year for what were deemed inadequate efforts to combat the drought/famine in the Horn of Africa, particularly for its delayed response. But the Sahel is not Somalia. And the Sahel is not facing a famine. Responding late to one crisis and responding inappropriately to the next suggests that something is broken. Something is wrong with the international response networks that have been designed to facilitate appropriate responses to food emergencies. The international community hesitated when FEWS warned in 2010 of a famine in Somalia, and tens of thousands suffered. Today, despite cautions by FEWS and others, donors and NGOs are again considering tactics that will not resolve the problem. The challenges of the Sahel suggest the time is right for a reexamination of how the international community makes assistance decisions about the world’s food crises.
Ambassador William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Farha Tahir is program coordinator and research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.