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Sahel food crisis: An East African repeat?

by Oxfam | July 19, 2012

This post was published by Embassy Magazine on July 11, 2012

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Humanitarian Coalition's joint appeal for the 2011 drought in East Africa, the images of vulnerable communities struggling to find food are still fresh in our minds. So are the lessons we learned from our concerted efforts.

In East Africa last year, one of the worst droughts in 60 years left more than 13 million people in need of food, water, and emergency health care. Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and the newly-formed Republic of South Sudan were all directly affected by the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people fled Somalia due to the drought and conflict, and parts of the country were afflicted by famine.

In response to the crisis, the Humanitarian Coalition's joint appeal raised $14 million thanks to the generosity of the Canadian public. Donations helped hundreds of thousands of people through the delivery of emergency food, basic health care, water, and sanitation, as well as a number of programs designed to build resiliency.

But it is now clear that earlier action could have saved more lives. A joint report, A Dangerous Delay, issued in January by Oxfam and Save the Children reviewed the international emergency response to the drought and famine in East Africa. It confirmed the need to intervene earlier to avoid a full-blown catastrophe. Had we, along with the international community, been faster out of the blocks, fewer children, mothers, families, refugees, and remote communities would have suffered. It would also have cost less to help them.

Applying lessons learned

One year later, on the other side of the continent, drought, low crop yields, high market prices for staples, and a violent uprising in Mali are putting more than 18 million people in the Sahel at risk of hunger.

While many of the causes behind the lack of food are the same in both regions, our collective response to the crisis in the Sahel does not have to be a repeat of last year's approach. In fact, it is not.

This year, we are heeding the report's recommendations and applying lessons learned. After weeks of raising awareness of the situation in the Sahel, on June 14, the Humanitarian Coalition members launched a joint appeal to bolster the response to the encroaching drought in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, and other countries. Because our member agencies have been in the region for decades, they have been able to scale up their operations to reach more people.

But as energetic, resourceful, and cost-effective as a coalition such as ours can be, our impact could go up exponentially with clear, open, and determined leadership from the Canadian government.

Whether that leadership is exercised by calling for, or even convening, an international donor conference, by establishing a matching-funds program for Canadian donations, or through other prominent means, it's time for global food security to make it to the front burner.

In February, the Canadian International Development Agency committed $41 million to fight hunger in the Sahel. This was a welcome start. Last month's announcement of a Zero Hunger Challenge is a sign that malnutrition remains on CIDA's radar, but much more is needed now.

As he takes over the complex aid portfolio, International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino has an opportunity to make CIDA more relevant both on the world stage and at home. Drawing on his experience as Ontario's commissioner for emergency response, Mr. Fantino should be well positioned to enhance CIDA's ability to react quickly to early warning signs and manage the agency's disaster-preparedness systems.

On the home front, he may want to consider the development of a humanitarian tool box that could include a set of criteria for the deployment of matching funds programs, as well as ideas for social media campaigns during slow onset emergencies to inform and engage Canadians.

More regular dialogue with Canadian non-governmental organizations that specialize in humanitarian relief would also help CIDA anticipate the consequences and demands of certain types of disasters.

The best way to fight a crisis is to avert it. That is how lives are saved. Success in this endeavour requires preparation, co-ordination, and the political will to lead. This means investing in disaster risk reduction mechanisms and a steadfast commitment to reducing vulnerability itself, not only its manifestations such as hunger and disease.

CIDA has all the human resources, technical expertise, and willing collaborators at its disposal to be a world leader in proactive humanitarian relief. Canadians expect that it will. Vulnerable populations the world over could benefit if it did.