The Economic Community of West African States is working to better coordinate agricultural production to increase profits for farmers and distribute food to areas affected by drought.
West African leaders have a comprehensive agriculture development program to support private sector investment in family farms, make those goods more competitive on international markets, and better guarantee food security.
Sheila Sisulu, the deputy executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, believes that commitment by the regional alliance known as ECOWAS will succeed because it is led by member states, collaborates with development partners, and addresses all aspects of food security.
"They are taking the lead in determining and making sure that food security and agriculture are front and center of their priorities. I think that is a great step forward," she said.
Sisulu says the alliance's Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program complements existing World Food Program projects, including its Purchase for Progress plan, which strengthens food security while guaranteeing prices for small farmers, most of whom are women in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone.
Sisulu says the United Nations can help ECOWAS determine how best to move food within the region from areas of surplus to areas of hunger.
"The other is of course our capacity to do vulnerability analysis and mapping and also early-warning systems, so that the governments are able, collectively through ECOWAS, to know where the crisis might hit, where the response might come from, and how to coordinate that so they prevent crises," she said.
This year, West Africa's biggest food crisis is in Niger, where 60 percent of the population are facing severe food shortages because of poor rains. The World Food Program is targeting more than 1.5 million people for a general food distribution and as many as 500,000 children under the age of six for specialized therapeutic feeding.
Relief officials say feeding programs are now reaching most of the people at risk. But there are not yet enough contributions from foreign donors to keep that going through the lean season between harvests.
"The international community has stepped up and the government in Niger has taken responsibility and is very, very responsive to the assistance they are being provided, that they have called for and they are getting. However, from a WFP/PAM point of view, we still are short of resources. And we hope, especially as we are really going into the lean season, going forward and heightened hunger, that we will be able to get the resources in," said Sisulu.
Across the Sahel, relief officials say ten million people could be affected by food shortages this year. The U.N. says more than 850,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition, mostly in Niger and Chad. Poor farmers in Niger, Chad, and northeastern Mali will likely need food assistance at least through the early harvests in August.