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West Africa: Sahel Food Crisis

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 7, 2012 (120607)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"The high prices of basic foods are the most alarming feature of the current Sahel crisis, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Prices are expected to keep rising until the end of August - during the lean season - but the size of recent hikes has surprised food price analysts and humanitarian aid personnel." - IRIN humanitarian news and analysis

The food crisis in the Sahel, affecting some 18 million people, predicted by early warnings beginning in October 2011, is the result of multiple causes: drought, displacement of people and disruption of production due to conflict, and structural poverty combined with rising food prices that make existing food stocks too expensive for large sectors of the populations of the countries in the region.

As usual, the response by regional governments and international agencies is being justly criticized as too little, too late, and too focused on short-term emergency needs as compared with addressing long-term issues of agricultural sustainability and resilience to crises. Notably, however, these criticisms and attempts to change the patternare coming not only from outside commentators but also from within the agencies and governments themselves.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains a UN press release, two informative articles from the UN humanitarian information service IRIN, and the press release from the meeting of West African states on the crisis held in Lome, Togo, on June 6.

Much of the video coverage and fundraising material features the usual stereotypical pictures. Nevertheless, the crisis is real. And there are some welcome exceptions with different voices. See, for example, the UNICED videos on "Memories of Sahel," in which immigrants from Sahel in New York City speak of conditions back home, the efforts of the people themselves, and the need to help: and These are part of the UNICEF #SahelNow campaign on twitter (

For additional background and detailed updates on the food crisis in the Sahel, see:

Particularly helpful summaries are the periodic Executive Briefs on the Sahel Crisis from the Food and Agriculture Organization, available at These outline programs and actions going beyond "relief" to more comprehensive action. The most recent is dated 25 May.

For a summary of humanitarian funding, see When this chart was accessed on June 7, only 37% of the total estimated needs for 2012 of $1.5 billion for the Sahel food crisis had been pledged.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on food and agriculture issues, visit For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on "aid" and global public goods, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Sahel Crisis: Urgent action needed to prevent catastrophe in the region

May 25, 2012

Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos wrapped up a four-day visit to Burkina Faso and Senegal calling for strong leadership and comprehensive response plans, as well as generosity from donors, to avoid the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel region becoming a catastrophe.

"The humanitarian situation is expected to remain critical at least until the main harvest this autumn in Senegal and elsewhere. We can do more to save lives and avoid the crisis becoming a catastrophe, but we need strong leadership and coordinated and speedy action," said Ms. Amos.

Ms. Amos, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (USG) and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), visited the region from 20 to 24 May to assess the current level of response to the crisis. More than 18 million people are estimated to be affected by drought and severe food insecurity across eight Sahel countries, with over one million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.

USG Amos met with Presidents Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso and Macky Sall in Senegal to discuss how best humanitarian agencies can support national response plans and put in place practical measures to enhance community resilience. In Burkina Faso, where 2.8 million people are affected by the crisis, Ms. Amos, also launched an Appeal for US$126 million to support Government efforts.

Failed harvests and growing hunger

In Senegal, where some 800,000 people are facing hunger, USG Amos witnessed food and seed distributions to vulnerable families in the village of Ndoulo, and visited a community centre where mothers learn how to recognize early signs of malnutrition and to prepare enriched food for their children. She also visited a health centre where severely malnourished children are getting treatment. All three are located in the Diourbel region, one of the areas worst affected by the drought. Many local families have lost their harvests and run out of food.

The USG's first stop was in Burkina Faso at the start of the week. One fifth of the country's total population needs help, including over half a million malnourished children. The situation has been made worse by the impact of the conflict in Mali. More than 60,000 people have fled the fighting and crossed the border into Burkina Faso – into areas which are already extremely vulnerable.

USG Amos travelled to a nutrition centre in Djibo and met with refugees at the Mentao refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso. Following the visit, Ms. Amos commented that she was pleased that local communities, who are sharing what little they have with the refugees, are also receiving assistance.

"The drought and rising food prices have taken their toll. Many families have had to sell their livestock to cover their household food needs or they are eating the seeds that they should plant for the next season," said Ms. Amos at a press conference in Ouagadougou.

Next few weeks critical to tackling hunger in the region

Bringing much-needed relief to hungry people in the coming weeks until the onset of the rainy season in mid-June, which will make many areas difficult to access, will be vital. However, the humanitarian situation across the region is expected to remain critical at least until the main harvest this autumn.

Aid agencies are on the ground supporting governments in the region in providing food assistance to hungry people. Other priorities include health, water and sanitation but these efforts urgently need further support from the international community. Ms. Amos also emphasized the need to build up people's ability to cope with future drought and other shocks and reduce dependence on emergency aid.

Sahel: Sharp price hikes cause alarm

IRIN humanitarian news and analysis: a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

May 25, 2012

Dakar/Ouagdougou, 25 May 2012 (IRIN) - Unexpectedly sharp price rises in April for local cereals like millet, rice and maize in parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad mean many vulnerable people in the drought-hit Sahel could find it even harder to get enough to eat.

The high prices of basic foods are the most alarming feature of the current Sahel crisis, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Prices are expected to keep rising until the end of August - during the lean season - but the size of recent hikes has surprised food price analysts and humanitarian aid personnel.

In Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, local millet is 85 percent above the five-year average, and in Mali's capital, Bamako, it is more than double, said Jean-Martin Bauer, the Food Security Monitoring Systems leader at the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

In Ouagadougou a 100kg bag of millet cost 26,000 cfa (US$49) in May 2012, compared to 15,000 cfa ($28) in May 2011, while in Bamako a 100kg bag of millet cost 28,500 cfa ($53) this year but only 14,000 cfa ($26) a year ago, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) monthly reports.

This volatility - when prices move outside of historical minimum or maximum increases, as they did in April - is as important to watch as steadily rising levels, said Gary Eilerts, Programme Manager at FEWS NET. Aid agencies say the very poor, who own no land or animals of their own and must buy most of their food, are worst affected.

Why are local grains so expensive?

The price of key foods is still very high across the globe. In February 2011 they reached a historic peak, partly linked to the rise in bio-fuel costs, the impact of speculation, and high oil prices, dropping by six percent in March 2012.

Analysts have questioned why these global price trends have also touched millet and sorghum - grains that are consumed in the Sahel but not globally.

While each Sahelian country has its own specific price dynamic – markets are disrupted in Mali partly because of conflict and displacement for instance – many of the answers can be found in Nigeria, which supplies half of West Africa's cereal needs, Bauer noted.

Economic growth in Nigeria has boosted domestic grain demand for human consumption, as animal feed, to produce beer, and for other uses, yet even steeply rising production - Mali and Niger produced 5 million mt of these grains plus other cereals in 2010 - cannot keep up with demand.

Ghana, too, has mounting consumption rates of these and other grains in its booming, oil-fuelled economy; and it has also been pushing agro-industrial development, including large poultry farms, which require grain as feed.

The Niger-Nigeria price differential for grains "is still what it should be", Bauer said. One kg of millet costs 222 cfa (45 US cents) in Maradi, a trading hub in southern Niger, and 200 cfa (40 US cents) across the border in Nigeria, which means exports are flowing normally. But Nigeria's capacity to respond to demands in the Sahel has weakened.

A 50 percent fuel price rise in January 2012 has increased food transport costs. Boko Haram - a jihadist group using violent means to establish Sharia law in northern Nigeria - caused the government to close the eastern border, bringing slowdowns in trade in western Chad and Niger. However, Chad, northern Cameroon and Niger are all still tapping into the same supply pool.

Sahel grain price trends

Prices started unseasonably high in October 2011 due to late harvests and unusually high demand, with traders - anticipating a problem - buying up large quantities of grains to sell on to governments and aid agencies, according to FEWS NET.

In much of Mali and Burkina Faso, prices have risen every month since October 2011, aside from a brief dip in January 2012, says Jean-Martin Bauer, Food Security Monitoring Systems Team Leader at the World Food Programme.

In Niger the trend was different, with sharp increases in November and December 2011 followed by a slight dip in January 2012, and slight increases in February and March. Chad experienced relatively stable prices in early 2012 after sharp increases in 2011.

"Demand is getting stronger by the day, while supplies across the Sahel are approaching their seasonal low," said Bauer.

Narrowing gap

The dynamic is unusual. The price of imported grains is traditionally much higher than local grains, but this gap is "seriously narrowing", said Bauer. For instance, imported rice usually costs roughly twice as much as local millet - as it did in May 2011 - but now a 50kg bag of millet in Bamako sells for 28,500 cfa ($54), while a bag of imported rice costs 35,000 cfa ($66), and 50kg of locally grown rice is priced at 42,500 ($81).

FEWS NET's Eilerts said other reasons for the sharp price rise in April may be because traders think institutions (governments, aid agencies) are still interested in buying large quantities of food, but "it might start raining, which means prices will drop," he said.

Buy cautiously

FEWS NET warns that in this context, "local and regional procurement [by aid agencies] should proceed cautiously". Governments are by far the biggest grain buyers in West Africa, but WFP, a significant purchaser, is careful to buy only off-market grains from long-term national stocks in Nigeria so as to limit the risks to local markets.

Rather than only buying grain to distribute, WFP is also boosting its cash voucher distributions in Niger, Mali, Senegal, northern Cameroon and Burkina Faso. The amounts given will not be able to keep up with rising prices, but a small buffer is built in to absorb some of the anticipated monthly price increases during the lean season, said Margie Rehm, WFP's cash-for-change programme officer. WFP has calculated that a household in Niger would receive vouchers worth 32,500 cfa ($62) per month, and one in Mali would get 25,000-36,000 cfa ($47-68), depending on where it is located.

Market interventions

Many agencies, including the international NGO, Oxfam, say that given the right market conditions, cash vouchers can be an important social protection mechanism for poor households. Several other interviewees said less targeted measures - such as subsidies or reduced taxes on cereals, which the government is taking to try to control prices - are expensive and inefficient because the rich also benefit.

Mali has lowered taxes on imported rice. Niger, Chad and Mauritania have made subsidized grains available. The new government in Senegal is attempting to bring down cereal prices through consultations with importers, distributors and consumer groups. Burkina Faso has tried to fund selected traders to sell staple grains at reduced prices, but they did not respect the contract and the government now aims to open shops in 182 communes, selling rice at $14 per 25kg bag.

Such temporary measures to control costs "do have a role", but historically they have been "very difficult to implement - subsidies generally don't work well in West Africa - they can end up making problems worse", said one food price specialist.

The Mali and Burkina Faso governments also banned grain exports, but blocking borders usually doesn't work, said Eilerts. "People just try harder and pay more to get around them, and farmers, seeing a blocked market, may be disincentivized to produce, pushing down production," which can have the opposite effect, he told IRIN.

Given chronic food deficiencies and malnutrition in the Sahel, governments need to set up safety nets that work in the long term, and can also be ratcheted up in an emergency, several interviewees told IRIN. "If measures are already in place, when the drought comes, governments should be able to shift gears," said Bauer.

Aid efforts across the Sahel are currently keeping millions of people alive, but the aid "remains insufficient to fully mitigate food insecurity in northern Mali, parts of Burkina Faso, and western Niger", FEWS NET said in its May briefing.

"We can do more to avoid catastrophe," the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said at a press conference on 24 May in the Senegalese capital, Dakar. "We need good leadership, strong coordination; each country needs a comprehensive response plan and funding from the humanitarian community."

Some $715 million of the $1 billion required for food and nutrition aid across the Sahel has been committed, according to the 18 May snapshot from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which estimates that nonfood sectors like health, clean water, education and protection bring the needs to at least $1.5 billion.

Agriculture, livestock and non-food sectors are severely underfunded. In the emergency appeal for Chad, funding for education is at only 6 percent of the requested amount, and for water and sanitation just 8 percent, while in Niger's appeal, education is 0 percent funded, with water and sanitation at 18 percent, according to OCHA.

"An integrated response is needed," Amos told IRIN. "Healthcare is particularly important, clean water and sanitation are critical, and we need to go beyond immediate relief efforts to support people's livelihoods in the long term."

Sahel: Donors learning funding lessons - slowly

6 February 2012

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

Dakar, 6 February 2012 (IRIN) - This year donors are stepping up more quickly to meet Sahel's humanitarian needs compared to 2010, when they were slow to respond. However, they are still at fault for taking a quick-fix approach rather than addressing long-term disaster prevention and resilience needs, say aid groups.

As of now, over US$150 million has been pledged to respond to food insecurity, drought and nutrition needs in the Sahel, whereas at the same point in 2010 donors were doing "almost nothing", said Amadou Sow in the Africa coordination division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

As early as December 2011 aid agencies and national governments campaigned for aid, while OCHA released its emergency appeal - whereas in the 2010 crisis this was not released until April, far later in the lean season.

The European Commission (EC) has directed $138 million to the region, according to Cyprien Fabre, head of ECHO (EU aid body) in West Africa, who says there is "great commitment at the EU level", with the development and humanitarian commissioners working closely together on the Sahel crisis. The EU is also expected to release longer-term funding soon.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) meanwhile, has channeled $67 million to the crisis, $25.5 million of it to the World Food Programme in Niger and Chad; France and the UK Department for International Development have each directed $10 million towards five Sahelian countries without yet specifying what is going where; the UN Central Emergency Response Fund has released $16 million of start-up funding; while Sweden, Germany, Austria and other donors have allotted smaller sums.

Most of these figures are not yet reflected in the OCHA financial tracking system which currently states that the Chad and Niger appeals are respectively 7 and 15 percent funded.

While such pledges are welcomed, the EC Humanitarian Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, recently said a conservative estimate of the needs over the next six months would be 500 million euros [US$654 million], "so there is clearly a considerable gap to fill," noted Stephen Cockburn, West Africa campaigns and policy manager at Oxfam.

Avoid repeat mistakes

Donors may fear repeating the mistakes of the Horn of Africa, where everyone responded too late, and may also want to show that they have learned the lessons from past Sahel crises, say aid workers.

"Donors are more interested in the Sahel now," said Fabre. "They probably want to make sure they don't miss the opportunity to have a correct, coherent, quality response this time."

However, some fear donors are waiting too long to specifically allocate their aid by country, positing they are waiting for more detailed figures on needs to be published. An OCHA Sahel strategy paper with specific needs in each country will be launched imminently.

Donors must not fund Chad and Niger to the neglect of other affected countries, including Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal, warns OCHA's Sow.

Longer-term still under-funded

While pledging has been swifter, the long-term aid that Sahel experts have been pushing for for years is still not prioritized, say Sahel experts.

"The argument [for longer-term resilience-oriented aid] has "not been won yet", said Fabre.

A number of aid agencies are involved in longer-term resilience work, such as Oxfam's project to give people cash transfers or cash-for-work to help vulnerable families cope with high food prices. "Some donors [the European Union and DFID] are beginning to fund this work, but as an approach it remains under-prioritized," said Oxfam's Cockburn.

The prevention and treatment of moderate acute malnutrition is one chronically under-funded sector in the Sahel: While over one million children are expected to face severe and life-threatening malnutrition this year, in a "normal" year the figure hovers around 800,000.

West Africa UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) nutrition specialist Robert Johnston told IRIN: "It is still difficult to ensure funding from government agencies for long-term preventative activities when there are critical life-saving interventions that they can respond to immediately. It's much easier [for them] to justify life-saving than long-term."

Likewise, it can be hard to get national governments on board: "In areas with low levels of education and poor healthcare systems, it is hard to plant the seed of prevention as an idea."

However, donor attitudes here are slowly changing, he said. UNICEF programmes now come from the point of view that emergency treatment and longer-term prevention of malnutrition are two sides of the same coin. "Everyone is starting to get the message," he said.

Aid agencies and donors should see their response to the Sahel drought as an opportunity to change their approach, said Kazimiro Rudolph-Jacondo, head of OCHA's West Africa office in Dakar. "This is a window of opportunity to build on lessons learned from the past and to resolve these problems over the long term," he told IRIN.

Ministers Launch Urgent Appeal Against Aggravating Food Crisis in West Africa

No: 158/2012

6 June 2012 [Lome - Togo]

ECOWAS Press Release

Ministers in charge of agriculture, regional integration and trade in West Africa have launched an urgent appeal to the international community to help mobilize financial resources in support of regional initiatives to mitigate the worsening food and nutritional crises in the region.

In a 20-point eight-page communiqué at the end of their High-level inter-ministerial meeting on regional food crises in Lome on Tuesday 5th June 2012, the ministers estimated that some CFA 400 billion (about US$800 million) would be required to complement the efforts already deployed by the affected states, inter-governmental organizations, and financial and technical partners to address the crises.

The meeting noted that the ECOWAS Commission had already mobilized about US$9.5 million and the West African Monetary and Economic Union (UEMOA) Commission US$8 million towards mitigating the food deficiency, but insisted that more efforts were required, especially to provide significant financial assistance to three worst affected countries – Mali, Niger and Senegal.

The two Commissions should also put in place permanent humanitarian corridors to assist displaced persons in northern Mali, protect farmers and ensure effective management of seasonal livestock movement especially in the Burkina Faso-Niger-Mali zones.

While calling on financial and technical partners to assist by mobilizing resources to help vulnerable populations in the affected Sahel and West African region particularly during the lean periods, the ministers also urged governments in the region to comply with the African Union's 2003 Maputo Declaration requiring governments to allocate a minimum of 10% of their annual national budgets to agriculture and food security.

Furthermore, the ECOWAS Commission was called upon to fasttrack the Establishment in 2012, of a Regional Agency and Regional Fund for Food and Agriculture, and collaborates with the UEMOA in providing the necessary infrastructure for the improvement of food production and better living conditions for pastoral communities and Facilitate livestock movements.

Opening the one-day inter-ministerial meeting, Togo's Prime Minister Gilbert Fessoun Houngbo had called for concerted measures to deal with the real and root causes of food crises in the region, and urged the coordinated mobilization of financial resources to ensure consistency and efficiency for the sustainable economic development of our region based on improved agricultural production.

According to him, Member States of ECOWAS, UEMOA and the Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), including Chad and Mauritania, have already recorded 9% reduction in cereal production this year compared to the 2010/2011 crop season.

In his remarks, the President of the ECOWAS Commission, His Excellency Kadre Desire Ouedraogo noted that between 13 million and 16 million people were already facing food insecurity in the region, especially in the Sahel belt with nine hardest hit countries - Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Niger, Senegal, Mauritania and Chad.

The meeting, co-financed by the ECOWAS and UEMOA Commissions, considered the report of the preceding meeting of regional experts also held in Lome on Monday 4th June.

The ministers' recommendations will feed into upcoming summits of regional leaders for urgent regional actions.

The High-level Meetings were attended by member states of ECOWAS, UEMOA and CILSS, including Chad and Mauritania, as well as representatives of financial and technical partners.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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