West Africa: U.N. Changes Tack to Slow Worsening Hunger, Poverty in Sahel

The United Nations is changing tack in its efforts to tackle the worsening hunger and poverty in Africa's arid and insecure Sahel belt by bridging the gap between its humanitarian and development sectors, a senior U.N. official said on Thursday.

Despite good harvests, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates some 16 million people are at risk of hunger in the Sahel next year, up from 11.3 million this year, raising questions over the effectiveness of the current approach.

In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Robert Piper, the U.N.'s Sahel humanitarian coordinator, was critical of the United Nations for failing to link the work of the short-term "humanitarian" and long-term "development" sectors to provide coherent planning for areas like the Sahel.

"I can't defend the lack of joined-up thinking between humanitarian and development actors. I've been in the U.N. system for 25 years and that's how long we've been talking about it, which shows a real lack of progress," said Piper. "My job is to bridge that gap."

In a major break with the past, humanitarian teams across the Sahel will move in 2014 to a three-year planning horizon from the one-year plans that have applied in the past, the first sign of a change in strategy towards longer-term emergency interventions, he said.

"The humanitarians are under pressure to 'go in, save lives, and get out', and they are often judged by not only how many people they save but also the speed with which they extract themselves and get ready for the next emergency," Piper said.

"When you are facing a chronic crisis like the Sahel, and humanitarians are being told they too need to take responsibility for reducing next year's caseload - that's a profound shift in expectations and it goes against some of our ingrained habits," he said.

"For some, it's going into 'development territory', working through national structures on sustainability, which is not what they signed up for," said Piper, who said the new approach aimed to combine the best of both sectors' work.

"We still need to be in a hurry. We still need to focus on saving lives. We still need to be preoccupied with our exit strategy. But we also need to leave responsibly, with the households we worry about on a better and safer path."

FUNDING SHORTAGE

The next formal appeal for funding for the Sahel will, for the first time, take place at a different time than the U.N.'s global appeal, which begins next week, and will coincide with the start of the farming season in February, to distinguish the needs of one of the world's longest running emergencies from other U.N. actions.

Piper said the global economic downturn and competing demands for aid for other crises had made it harder to raise donor funds for the Sahel. This year, foreign aid for the Sahel was little more than half the amount the world body had sought - 58 percent.

Syria alone accounts for more than $4.4 billion of a global U.N. humanitarian appeal for $13 billion, compared with the $1.7 billion required for the nine Sahel countries stretching from Senegal in the west to Chad in the east, according to OCHA figures.

Piper said he does not encourage comparisons between Syria and Sahel on some kind of "suffering index", but urged donors not to forget problem areas that do not grab headlines.

"There's always been chronic poverty in the Sahel, there's always been food insecurity and malnutrition, and I feel we've become immune to this incredible suffering," Piper said.

To date, the shortage of funding has pushed donors and agencies to spend money on immediate priorities rather than make riskier, longer-term investments that might bear fruit only the following year, Piper said.

"Of course, feeding a starving mother today or funding therapeutic treatment for a severely malnourished child wins hands down over providing emergency seeds for next year's harvest or repairing dirty water sources," he said.

Only 47 percent of the funding wanted for agriculture was met this year compared with almost 85 percent of the funding required for food assistance. Water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) projects received only 29 percent of the funding they had sought, OCHA data show.

"Yet it's frustrating to sit here and see that we're going to have another massive burden of hunger next year, even without a drought, and part of the reason is our inability to respond in a more comprehensive way to the needs this year," Piper said.

"We need to be able to treat for today, and prevent for tomorrow so mothers and children don't have to keep coming back year after year."

NOT JUST WEATHER

Good weather this year meant farm output in the Sahel was 1 percent higher than the average of the previous five years, but due to conflict and higher population there was around 13 percent less food per capita, Piper said.

Instability in northern Mali, violence in the Central African Republic and northern Nigeria, and a fertility rate of 7.6 children per mother in countries like Niger, have limited the supply and pushed up the price of food across the Sahel and kept malnutrition rates among the highest in the world.

"Today, a smaller proportion of the poor are subsistence farmers or pastoralists, whose fate is directly related to the weather. Rather, many depend on labour markets, like you and me, often being paid for seasonal jobs on a day-to-day basis," Piper said.

"They don't grow all their own crops or raise enough animals in idyllic African landscapes to support themselves. Instead, they buy from the local food markets, which makes them incredibly vulnerable to the movement of prices, especially as they spend 50 to 60 percent of their wages on feeding their families," he said.

"Blaming everything on the weather distances you from the sense of urgency, which is at best disempowering and at worst allowing you to maybe shirk responsibility," Piper warned. "Social protection schemes, insurance policies, development of climate-hardy seeds and diversification of livelihoods are just some of the things that can help families deal with an increasingly erratic climate."

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