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Early Warnings on the Hunger Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region?

June 08, 2012

Journalists, policy experts, bloggers (including myself) and World Food Programme staff joined in a robust discussion last week about the current hunger situation in Africa’s Sahel region, including its causes and what can be done moving forward. In the Google+ hangout, streamed on YouTube, Denise Brown, the World Food Programme’s Country Director for Niger logged on from the capital, Niamey, to report precisely what is happening in the region and how people are faring in the wake of no rains, failed crops, and increased food prices.

One of the primary points that Brown emphasized was about early warning systems and data propelled early intervention. These may sound highly technical but their importance in helping save lives cannot be overstated. These tools allow for heightened awareness of the  hunger crisis in the Sahel before it reached the magnitude of a severe food crisis, a crisis akin to what we saw last year in the Horn of Africa.

“What is different this time in Niger is we got it right,” said Brown. “The early warning systems are in place. The early warning data was used to develop an early response.”

While there is massive food and nutritional needs in the Sahel that could potentially grow increasingly worse without more donor help and media attention, Brown strongly pointed out that what is occurring in the Sahel is not a famine.

“Let me emphasize we are not in a famine in Niger,” Brown said. “The early warning systems in this country work. The government has been behind the response. The UN has been behind the response. The NGOs and the donors have accompanied us for this first phase of the intervention. We are not by any means in a famine.”

In Niger, in particular, the response has been multi-faceted with the government, NGOs, and the UN all working together to raise awareness about the Sahel crisis and save lives. That, however, is not the case for all countries in the Sahel. Due to political unrest in Mali, 300,000 refugees have streamed into neighboring countries including Niger. In all, 9 million people are in need of food aid across the Sahel.

The need for more food aid draws pointed questions and sometimes exasperated concerns about whether increased agriculture can save the region and less dependence placed on annual rains, instead having countries employ  underground water systems for irrigated crops. To Brown, agriculture is a short-term solution.

“This can’t just be about agriculture particularly with the population growth in Niger,” Brown mentioned in response to a question from an economist at the Center for Global Development. “Agriculture production is important in the short term to make a difference in the lives of people who live in remote, rural villages.”

Brown took a larger overview of the food crisis and emphasized that education has to be a priority in the region as there is largely an uneducated workforce that only understands how to be farmers. Education for children, particularly girls, as well as private sector partnerships will push Niger and the region into greater development where they will be far less vulnerable to food crises.

The state of the hunger crisis in the Sahel dictates that aid must happen now.But those who are working in the region, like Brown, understand that to prevent another food shortage next year ideas to combat another hunger season have to be employed. “The next challenge is what’s next,” said Brown. “How do we turn the situation around in Niger where every single cereal deficit doesn’t automatically trigger a crisis? We’re working on the now and the future.”

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