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Aid Agencies Call for Different Way to Fight Sahel Hunger

Boys walk on desert sands in the town of Moghtar-Lajjar in west Africa's Sahel region, where the United Nations says civil unrest and a drought have put 18 million people in food insecurity, May 25 2012.
Boys walk on desert sands in the town of Moghtar-Lajjar in west Africa's Sahel region, where the United Nations says civil unrest and a drought have put 18 million people in food insecurity, May 25 2012.
DAKAR, Senegal — Aid agencies are calling for a new approach to tackling hunger in Africa's Sahel region, which is struggling through its third severe food crisis in a decade. A new report by World Vision and Save the Children looks at alarming rates of chronic child malnutrition for clues on how to break the cycle of food emergencies in the region.

2011 saw a record harvest in Niger. However, nearly as many malnourished children were admitted to treatment centers that year as in 2010, the year of a severe drought and devastating food shortages throughout the Sahel. Why?

The answer to that question, according to a new study by World Vision and Save the Children, holds the key to what is driving yet another food crisis in the Sahel.

Better access to food is essential

Child malnutrition, the study says, does not necessarily mean there is not enough food. It means people can not access it. They can't afford it.

"The issue of food, nutrition and people not having enough to eat, it's been looked at mainly from the supply side, if you look at the science of economics," said Paul Sitnam, World Vision's Regional Humanitarian Emergency Affairs Director. "But now, what we're trying to say is let's look at it from the demand side, the access side," said Sitnam. 'Even when there is no food production, there is also food there because of trade and other stores - people have stored up some food. It's just that people who are so poor, and even with subsidies sometimes, they can't access the food that's available in the market."

The study is part of a gradual shift in the humanitarian approach to hunger in the Sahel that is upending the traditional logic that increasing agricultural production will ultimately reduce food prices, head off food shortages and improve nutrition in the long term.

The study says this "supply-driven" approach is not helping the poorest 25 percent of small-scale farmers in the Sahel.

Providing a lifeline to struggling families

Instead, World Vision and Save the Children say preventing future crises hinges on increasing families' "resilience" to shocks. A shock could be anything from locusts, a rapid doubling in grain prices or the drought that led to this year's poor harvests.

The study says reducing chronic child malnutrition and promoting small-scale agriculture are essential to helping families weather the inevitable storms.

The current food crisis in the Sahel threatens 18 million people, many of whom have not yet recovered from losing their livestock or their livelihoods during the last food crisis in 2010.

This "resilience deficit," as the study calls it, is what Sitnam says is driving the current, and potentially future, disasters.

"They're poor already and they're getting poorer. Why? Because they are getting hit by a crisis; they start picking themselves up slowly and another crisis hits them," he said. "Again they go down, they try to get up, another crisis hits them. So it's continual. They don't have enough time to catch their breath and to build up their assets so they can resist the next shock. The thrust of what we're saying is let's give them assets. Let's give them the capacity to access whatever food there is so they can resist better these shocks which will come again."

New approaches offered

Humanitarian agencies increasingly have explored "cash for work" and "cash distribution" strategies in the Sahel in recent years.

Sitnam said governments and aid agencies reacted quickly to this year's crisis and hopefully have averted a "worst-case scenario." The situation on the ground, though, remains difficult.

"There are people in Mali and Niger who are reduced from two to one meal a day, Sitham said. "They are sending their children to the cities to look for work or live with relatives. They are taking their kids out of school. They are foraging for food that may not be the best for them. They're trying to go out and earn money to buy whatever food there is on the market. As I've said, there is a big access problem."

The study says short-term emergency food assistance, while important during an acute crisis, cannot address underlying vulnerability and the high rates of malnutrition among hundreds of thousands of children in the Sahel during non-crisis years.