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

Key messages from the conference "Food crisis in the Sahelian strip"
François Grünewald

With the response to the sahel food crisis being implemented, Groupe URD felt it would be useful to remind actors of lessons learned during previous crises. Having been involved in the sub-region for a long time, having carried out numerous evaluations and having been present in Chad since 2009 through its Observatory (the OPAT project funded by DG ECHO), Groupe URD decided to share its expertise by organising a conference on the food crisis in the Sahel. This event brought together more than 120 national and international actors: Chadian ministries, United Nations’ agencies, national and international NGOs, etc. Regional analysis (via presentations on Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso…) and deeper multi-sector reflections on Chad (early warning, pastoralism, resilience, nutrition…) made it possible to highlight a certain number of key messages.

 Historical perspective: forty years of crisis in the Sahel

Analysis of the responses to the crises in the Sahel since the major drought of 1973-75 showed how much response mechanisms have evolved:

  • The state-run Cereal Offices were gradually dismantled as part of structural adjustment policies which also weakened agronomic research into arid regions. The influence of market mechanisms over cereal fluxes both facilitated the flow of products and accentuated the emergence of speculation.
  • International food aid often proved to be the only way of gaining access to significant quantities of emergency stocks. But the negative effects of this aid were also increasingly obvious: destabilization of markets, the creation of dependency, aid distribution mechanisms leading to the creation of IDP camps and villagisation, etc. Classic food aid gradually evolved, with the emergence of food-for-work, increased support for agricultural recovery, support for market-related mechanisms (de-stocking), etc. From the middle of the 2000s, the number of aid systems based on financial transfers in various forms grew, profoundly modifying certain paradigms of aid.
  • The number of early warning systems based on agro-meteorological data and market prices grew in the sub-region. These were progressively added to by the use of satellite imagery and increasingly efficient analytical systems. (NOAA, FEWSNET).
  • A certain number of development organisations, such as the FAO, developed crisis response tools. The response to the crises in the Sahel was also greatly helped by the huge increase in the number of humanitarian actors since the beginning of the 1990s, which also raised questions regarding the coordination and coherence of operations.
  • National, governmental and civil society organisations, for their part, have become stronger and are more and more explicit in their demands to play a central role in response mechanisms.
  • Since the 90s, the demographic challenge, urbanisation and the increasing frequency of agro-climatic crises have made the southern strip of the Sahara more vulnerable. The resilience of agro-pastoral and pastoral communities has been seriously eroded as a consequence.

The main points from the conference, “Sahelian Strip Food Crisis: lessons from previous humanitarian responses and the challenges ahead” are to be seen with this historical retrospective in mind.