Fighting Malnutrition In The Sahel


Across the Sahel region, an estimated 10 million people are at risk of famine. Niger and Chad, two of the poorest countries in the world, have declared states of emergency. If this narrative sounds familiar, it’s because it unfortunately is. UNICEF estimates that 300,000 children under five die in the Sahel each year directly or indirectly from malnutrition, and the organization expects to treat 859,000 under-fives in the region this season for severe malnutrition. The last large scale famine in Niger in 2005 prompted authorities – both national and international – to declare: “never again.” In spite of stepped-up prevention efforts and quicker reaction times this time around, the international community and the governments of the Sahel region are once again unable to fully address the current food crisis.

The World Food Program (WFP) is facing funding shortfalls, which is disrupting the agency’s efforts to source food crops from the West African region. According to IRIN, the WFP is $22 million short of the $124 million it needs to purchase 113,000 mt of food for Niger. So far, the WFP has received 40,000mt of the 113,000mt needed for 2010, and expects to receive about 20,000mt in July and in August.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said just 57% of Niger’s $191 million emergency appeal had been covered. In Chad, the WFP is still 30% short of their $65 million appeal. Speaking to AFP, Chadian Agriculture Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said “we estimate our needs at 100,000 tonnes of cereals. So far, we have received 55,000.

Analysts have also noted that the ongoing refugee crisis in eastern Chad has also contributed to the growing food crisis in other parts of the country, as humanitarian organizations and international agencies focus their attention (and funding) on other priorities. According to Reuters, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) announced on Wednesday that an extra $14 million would be allocated for Niger. The European Union has also announced an additional $29 million for the Sahel. In an attempt to circumvent some of the logistical constraints of distributing food in remote locations in Niger, some organizations are also distributing cash and/or seeds in some communities.

In researching this post, it became apparent that media coverage of this food crisis is scarce. There is little in the way of analysis, and up to date information is difficult to obtain. Media attention should not be the gauge used evaluate the seriousness of a humanitarian crisis. Some commentators, however, have noted that it wasn’t until pictures of emaciated children appeared on TV screens across the world in 2005 that the international community stepped up its response to the devastating famine in Niger (a famine for which, incidentally, no official death toll has been established.) Speaking to Reuters, Bruno Jochum, operations director for MSF in Chad said that “for the world aid system to fully leap into action, it still needed to be confronted with “critical situations” such as the archetypal TV image of the starving child that this year may come from the Sahel“, adding that “it is still probably the trigger for many interventions.” 

The international community and governments of the Sahel region have been promising to address chronic malnutrition and to stymie the cycle of famines. Not only are these issues severely hampering these countries’ ability to achieve social, economic and political goals, but neglecting these crises highlights the urgent need to bring concrete actions on global food security in line with the promises made on that front.


photo credit: etrenard on Flickr