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Humanitarian Aid on the move #10, special issue: Sahel

Re-focusing development actors’ targeting on the poorest people in the Sahel to build long-lasting resilience
Cyprien Fabre - Eric Pitois

After the crisis in Niger in 2005, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, more commonly called ECHO, conducted a series of evaluations in the Sahel. The problem of malnutrition, which had been revealed in Niger, proved in fact to be firmly rooted throughout the Sahelian strip, far beyond the economic crises linked to rain and harvests.

The research carried out since then in connection with programmes aimed at malnutrition has given very disappointing results. In all the countries of the Sahel, levels of global acute malnutrition are higher than warning levels (10% of children under five) and often higher than emergency levels (15% of children under five). Research and data about care provided show that these rates remain high even in ‘good’ agricultural years, and even in areas with substantial agricultural production. In the Sahel, there is no longer any connection between agricultural production and malnutrition.

And yet, the majority of development projects in recent decades have supported national policies focused on agricultural production. Food self-sufficiency and export sectors have often been privileged. Analysis of the household economy [1] very clearly shows that a substantial section of the rural population is not involved in the projects related to these policies and does not benefit from them in any way. Increasing national production does not raise the living standards of rural populations.

Indeed, recent studies of the household economy in the Sahel have been eloquent in contradicting the cliché of rural environments where levels of wealth are homogenous. We now know that the poorest categories of the rural population depend essentially on markets for their food as they do not produce enough themselves. They are therefore extremely vulnerable to increases in food prices, as in 2008 and 2012. Their income comes from selling produce from small plots with low productivity which, after a bad year, does not allow debts built up during the lean period to be repaid. The worst combination of factors for them is an increase in food prices and a poor harvest or a lack of pasture, as was the case in 2012.

The increase in the population and the failure of different family planning policies, in addition to major environmental damage, has led poor farmers to cultivate smaller and smaller plots with increasingly degraded soil.

Destructive coping mechanisms are then put in place, such as indebtedness at usury rates, the sale of productive assets and the removal of children from school which lead to loss of access to health care and basic services. The most vulnerable then find themselves trapped, and each crisis drags more and more into extreme poverty with increased risks of malnutrition for the children. The most vulnerable lose almost all their resilience to shocks.

This dynamic explains why, despite improved coverage by Nutrition projects [2], there has been no progress in terms of malnutrition rates in recent years while the number of children has continued to grow. In order to be able to reverse this trend, it is necessary to prevent malnutrition by combating its fundamental causes. Just treating malnutrition cases is like cleaning the streets of Niamey when there is a sand storm.

Poverty is passed on from generation to generation, particularly due to the malnutrition of the mother and the consequences of this in terms of the reduced cognitive development of their children. Without a rapid change in economic paradigm, it is hard to see how extremely poor people, who constitute half of the rural population, and whose development capacities have been eroded year after year by gradually excluding themselves from productive circuits, could respond and become involved in a dynamic of growth.

[1] Household Economic Analysis: reference site run by SAVE: http://www.hea-sahel.org

[2] Implementing nutritional rehabilitation programmes remains very expensive, even though new strategies have made monitoring children at home easier. Adopting strategies on this scale brings insurmountable daily problems and the long-term sustainability of many of these programmes depends a great deal on external donors.