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Oxfam: 2013 Decisive Year for Breaking Sahel Hunger Cycle

  • Jennifer Lazuta

A Zimbabwean collects her monthly rations of food aid from Rutaura Primary School in the Rushinga district of Mount Darwin, north of Harare, March 7, 2013.

A Zimbabwean collects her monthly rations of food aid from Rutaura Primary School in the Rushinga district of Mount Darwin, north of Harare, March 7, 2013.

2013 will be a decisive year for breaking the cycle of hunger and building up people’s resilience, the aid agency Oxfam says.

An estimated 10 million people living in Africa’s Sahel region remain vulnerable following last year’s food crisis, which jeopardized the livelihoods of more than 18 million across nine countries and put more than one million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

It was the fourth such crisis in seven years.

Elise Ford, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy advisor and author of a new report that analyzes the response to the 2012 food crisis, said despite a response last year that was bigger, better and faster than ever before, major changes need to made to the current system of food crisis aid.

“I think the first thing is to have much more urgent action and recognition of the crisis," said Ford. "I think it’s really very clear how precarious the situation still is. Ten million people are still in the situation of food insecurity. The crisis has left them indebted, they’ve lost animals, their stocks have run out, and so really this year is going to be a key transition year if people are going to be able to get back on their feet.”

Early warning systems, put in place following criticism that the response to the 2010 crisis was “too little, too late,” allowed governments and aid agencies to react more quickly in 2012.

But while more than 5 million people received food aid from the World Food Program last year, Ford said that initial disagreement over the severity of the crisis and a critical delay in receiving pledged funds meant that millions more were never reached.

This left many people unable to recover from the crisis and has made them more vulnerable to future shocks such as drought.

Mbacké Niang, who oversees Oxfam’s regional programs, said that in order to break this cycle of food insecurity, aid workers and local authorities must not only react earlier, but also address structural challenges.

Niang said there must be a clear understanding of who is most vulnerable and why before addressing the gap that exists between short-term emergency response and long-term development work. And donors and governments should increase investment in local and national food reserves, small-scale agriculture and social protection programs to better support citizens.

Ending the divide between short and long-term aid is particularly important, said Niang, because humanitarian workers tend to have different goals and ways of working than development experts. Niang believes what is needed is a consensus - a joint-action plan between the two groups - a system that doesn’t sacrifice long-term security for short-term relief, and vice versa.

While some steps are being taken in the right direction, Ford said aid agencies and governments must take charge of their financial pledges before it is too late.

The United Nations has estimated that $1.66 billion will be needed in 2013 to tackle food insecurity issues in the region.

Oxfam reports that, as of April 5, only 24 percent of the U.N. appeal for aid had been funded.

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