Monday, 13 February 2012

WFP oversimplifies the Sahel

WFP is very fond of bite-sized - or rather twitter-sized factoids to explain complex situations. Sometimes they are useful. Raising awareness by getting out there the fact, for example, that more poor children are dying because of poor nutrition and sanitation than anything else is useful. But sometimes it's a problem. This is a problem: 
1. Why are people going hungry in the Sahel?The rains only come once per year in the African Sahel and last year, they were patchy and late. That’s a recipe for disaster in a part of the world where most people live on what they can grow. When the rains don’t come on time, harvests fail, animals die and people start going hungry. 
What? No. Drought is an easy scape-goat. But droughts happen everywhere all the time. Okay, not everywhere but definitely in all the places where people live on the edges of large desserts. That isn't why people are hungry. At least, on its own, that isn't why people are going hungry. There are other factors. Like the fact that Niger, for example, is one of the poorest, least developed countries on earth. Like the fact that the region is still reeling from the last food security crisis which, contrary to what the WFP appears to believe, was not restricted to Niger but affected people in several Sahel countries. Like the fact, and this is important, that not enough was done the last time around to protect the livelihood assets of the vulnerable people who were losing everything as they were pushed to the brink of famine. In particular, the response the last time around did little to protect the primary livelihood asset of the most vulnerable groups - livestock. Because, in spite of what WFP seems to be trying to sell (I'm guessing because they thing the audience will find it easier to understand rather than because they don't know), pastoralist livelihoods are probably most important in this region. So, no, rainwater harvesting (really? really?) and village granaries won't solve the problem. 

It's great that people are finally noticing that Niger and broader the Sahel is hungry. It would be even better if we could be honest about what is really going on and the fact that this isn't a once-off drought that can be 'solved' with a little food aid and some kindly smiles. 

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