Mamadou Biteye

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(Regional Director for "Oxfam GB in West Africa" -

First in 2005, then in 2010, Sahel, the semiarid region of north-central Africa south of the Sahara Desert, was strongly struck by famine. Drought and famine in this region are not occasional phenomena, and underline trend of increasing chronic vulnerability.  Why these countries are not able to solve these problems? What are the long term consequences of food crisis in these regions? What are the actions to implement in order to increase Sahel resilience from external factors and to avoid future food crisis? Mamadou Biteye, Regional Director for Oxfam GB in West Africa since February 2009, will answer to these and other questions.
INTERVIEW - (October 2012)
The interview was realized and published in Octeober 2012 - (Original interview in Italian)
Subject: Food crisis in Sahel: causes, consequences and solutions
1.Question: Acute food crises, such as occurred in 2005, and again in 2010, are short term peaks, of an underlying trend of increasing chronic vulnerability” (Sahel Working Group – September 2011). What do you think about this point? What are the “driving factors” of this chronic vulnerability?
Crises as seen in 2005, 2010 and again across the Sahel this year are the tip of the iceberg in a region facing chronic food insecurity. A key fact is that even in a year with a ‘good’ harvest, 230,000 children die of malnutrition-related causes.  The Sahel is facing a permanent emergency - we just notice it more in years where the crisis becomes even larger.

People across the Sahel are living in a fragile environment, are living close to the poverty line and are therefore extremely vulnerable to shocks that come along. Droughts in the Sahel are a major driving factor, and they have become ever more regular, meaning those shocks come more often and communities may not be able to recover from one crisis before the next one hits. This creates a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. Disease, poverty, environmental degradation, demographic growth and conflict are also key causes of chronic vulnerability, while policies and programmes are not sufficiently targeting and supporting the most vulnerable.
2. Question: he food crisis in 2010 affected millions of people in Sahel. Apart from short term consequences (Malnutrition, illness, deaths…), what are, in your opinion, “the worst long term consequences” of food crisis in these countries (and more in general in countries affected by this kind of problems)?
The deterioration of livelihoods is the most significant long term consequences. It needs 3 years for a pastoralist to rebuild their sheep herds and 5 years for cattle, entrenching those affected into poverty whilst making them more vulnerable again to the next drought.
The long-term consequences of child malnutrition are also critical, since it affects the physical and mental development of children, with lasting consequences.

Overall, it is impossible to achieve economic development and political stability while a large part of a population risks going hungry. It is not a problem countries can afford to ignore.
3. Question: Who is “the main guilty” of the new wave of food crisis in Sahel in 2010: International Organizations, rich countries, national politicians, local politicians, local citizens, lack of a good agricultural system?
Responsibilities are at all levels but national governments have the main responsibility to develop policies and programs aiming at tackling food insecurity, while international organizations and donor governments should be supporting them. In previous crises there have been major failings on both sides, with support provided being insufficient and late. In 2012, political leadership from governments in the region and financial support from donors have both significantly improved – saving many lives – but there remain many ways this can improve further.
4. Question: Infrastructures, Energy, Water, Education, efficient Political institutions, a good Health care system, Empowering of girls, are “the main social basis” for development. What do you think are the elements Sahel’s countries lack more?
There are many areas where countries in the Sahel need to develop further, not least in improving food security and access to essential social services. Fundamentally this requires populations to have access to resources to drive their own development, and to ensure that governments are accountable to them so that policies and programmes meet their needs. It is as much a question of governance as technical solutions.
5. Question: Among Sahel countries, what is “that more affected by famine”? Can you describe the standard day of a poor person living there?
It is important to note that technically countries in the Sahel have not been facing famine. A Famine would be declared if four people out of 10,000 are dying a day due to nutrition-related causes. It is more accurate to talk of a severe food crisis affecting over 18 million people in 2012.
Countries which face recurrent food crisis such as Chad and Niger are usually the most affected countries when a crisis arises. They need particular solutions to deal with the recurrent crisis, and continual support. But other countries across the region are affected too.
There are many diverse experiences of communities living in food insecurity. Some have to migrate, taking their children out of school, to look for food or work. Others may have to resort to eating wild roots and leaves. Some may be forced into prostitution in towns. Others may take on debts that will keep them poor. In the most extreme cases we know that women in areas of Chad have been forced to scavenge for grain in anthills to feed their family.

Question: Apart from Sahel, what are, in your opinion, “the other countries” around the word that risk more to face problems of food crisis?
Many developing countries are exposed to food crises, with 870 million facing hunger. The exact situation differs from country to country and region to region, but often they are a result of a lack of investment to tackle the underlying causes of vulnerability – not just because there has been a drought in any particular year. This is as true in the Horn of Africa, which faced a huge famine in 2011, as it is in the Sahel. We know that droughts will happen and are inevitable, but hunger and food crisis is not – they can be prevented if we help communities become more resilient to them.
7. Question: “What Sahel’s countries need more”: a self-sufficient agricultural system, social equality among inhabitants, or international food aids?
The Sahel needs:

- An appropriate investment in agriculture that is focused on small holders farmers
- Social protection and food reserves policies and programs that will aim to prevent food crises and will help build the resilience of poor people.
- A commitment of governments in the region to prioritise support for their most vulnerable citizens, and to be responsive to their needs.
- A commitment of donors to support such policies and programs
Question: Taking into account climate change, its consequences in terms of increasing and widespread drought, and the increasing global population, “how the local agricultural systems, the global ones, and the global diet in the world should change” in order to avoid more frequent and widespread problems of food crisis around the world?
Responsible investment is needed. Agro ecology is key in mitigating climate change. But at the same time the investment in building the resilience of communities will help people deal with the impacts of climate change.
9. Question: Finally, could you set up the main “5 actions”, all the actors involved should implement to bring Sahel out from its chronic vulnerability?
- Break down the divide between emergency responses and long-term development by investing in programs that build the resilience of communities to prevent future crises.
- Ensuring states meet their commitments made at the 2013 AU Summit in Maputo to invest 10% of national budgets in agriculture, ensuring this investment is targeted towards small-scale food producers.
- Develop social protection policies and programs targeting vulnerable people that can ensure poor populations are able to withstand shocks to their livelihoods.
- Support the implementation of a system of regional, national and community-level food reserves systems that enable people to deal with volatile food prices.
- When there is warning of a food crisis, all actors must be ready to invest in programmes long before the food crisis hits to prevent the worst, and to keep investing after the peak to help people recover.