Burkina Faso Bucks Worsening Hunger Trend Before Crucial Referendum

Ouagadougou — Burkina Faso says it has reduced hunger in the country at a time when neighbouring Sahel nations have undergone the worst food crisis in decades, prompting scepticism among aid officials ahead of a crucial referendum due later this year.

More than 20 million people throughout the nine-nation Sahel region are at risk of hunger, many countries doubling the number at risk in the last year, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said.

But the data from Burkina Faso show the landlocked country has reduced food insecurity, a measure of hunger, from 1.8 million people in 2013 to an estimated 1.3 million this year, a cut that has taken everyone by surprise.

"We are in a country where we may have elections very soon, there could be social uprisings, so they really don't want to announce bad things," said Eric Pitois, Head of Mission for the European Union's humanitarian arm (ECHO) in Burkina Faso.

President Blaise Compaore came to power in 1987 after leading a military coup in which his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, was killed. He has since won four elections, and wants to extend his presidency by holding a popular referendum, then amending the constitution to allow him to compete in next year's elections.

In January, opposition leaders and young Burkinabe protesters took to the streets of the capital Ouagadougou to show their discontent in what was seen as a rare sign of dissent in the relatively stable West African country. The protests were peaceful, but many remain unhappy.

"I am 25 years old and I have not known another president - that's not democracy, that's a tyranny," one protester told Thomson Reuters Foundation, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tinga Ramde, Executive Secretary for the National Committee for Food Security, says the hunger data are legitimate and noted that Burkina Faso has surpassed the 2003 Maputo Declaration, which states that African countries should allocate at least 10 percent of their national budget to agriculture.

"We are allocating 14 percent of our budget to agriculture. Since 2008, the state has subsidised seeds and fertiliser for most farmers to help increase the harvest. Since 2012, we have introduced machinery like tractors as well as irrigation," said Ramde.

On the demand side, the government has subsidised the prices of cereals like rice, maize, sorghum and millet in special stores called 'boutique temoins.'

"During times of crisis, like in 2012, food prices go up in the market so poor people can no longer afford to buy their food. In these stores, the price of rice for example is 300cfa/kg whereas it was over 480cfa/kg after the food crisis of 2012," he said.

Donors remain sceptical, saying that an increase in food production and a reduction in prices does not necessarily mean access to markets has improved.

"Are we really sure these figures are really down? I'm not sure at all. For sure it is going better, but as well as it is claimed? Let's see," said Pitois, adding that a large number of people were still suffering from malnutrition.

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