While severely high food prices and lower-than-average cereal outputs are already forcing some vulnerable Sahelians into distress responses, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) food security website FEWSNET says messaging on the situation needs to be more nuanced.
It says the links between cereal production and malnutrition have been exaggerated, the complexities of regional market conditions inadequately conveyed, and the need for long-term structural solutions under-emphasized.
IRIN discussed with aid agencies and Sahel food security analysts, the subtleties of getting early warning messages right in such situations.
Food security in the Sahel this year is part of a “persistent and predictable reservoir of chronic acute food insecurity” they say,” in a predictable portion of the region’s population”, and requires long-term structural aid not short-term fixes.
Malnutrition versus food security
Countries in the Sahelian zone produced a lower-than-average harvest this year , leading UN agencies and analysts to predict 2.5 million ton cereal deficits in the region, some of which should be met by market flows.
But predicted cereal deficits should not be conflated with malnutrition, says FEWSNET. While harvest outputs and malnutrition rates are linked, they are not inextricable: “Even unlimited amounts of food assistance would not be able to eliminate a substantial (probably more than half) part of this [malnutrition] caseload,” they estimate.
This is because much of the malnutrition in the region is caused by other factors: poor water quality, low-quality health care, poor sanitation and poor feeding practices, which were recently stressed in the Sahel Working Group and Oxfam’s report entitled Escaping the Hunger Cycle; Pathways to Resilience in the Sahel.
Food aid is thus a blunt tool to address this problem - as well as the myriad other problems that poor pastoralists, poor urban communities, and others are currently dealing with.
Oxfam’s food security head Al Hassan Cissé agrees: “Given a still-growing population, chronic malnutrition, indebtedness, and loss of remittances, among other factors, I am not sure we [the international community] have the right tools to address these issues at the moment,” he said.
Any relevant response must take into account the chronic, structural vulnerability of the Sahel, say aid agencies and analysts. For instance, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has estimated over one million children in the Sahel region may face “severe and life-threatening malnutrition” in 2012, over one third of them in Niger. It is important to note that in 2011, with one of the best harvests on-record, just under 900,000 under-fives were in the same scenario. “And these needs will probably be there in 2013,” said the analyst. “This context is important.”
UN World Food Programme (WFP) food security head Naouar Labidi acknowledged that food security and malnutrition do not have a simple cause and effect relationship. However, they are linked: “Malnutrition is everything - health, access to water, feeding practices, etc, but it is also the result of access to food, and it [malnutrition] gets worse when this access declines,” she told IRIN.
Malnutrition is already poor in the Sahel, with rates exceeding 15 percent – the emergency threshold -- in some locations. “In a crisis you want to prevent death –any additional shock could push up these malnutrition rates further - resulting in higher mortality rates. Blanket feeding is one way of preventing deterioration of the nutrition situation. So we cannot afford not to act,” she said.
It’s all in the prices
FEWSNET also notes that while high food prices across the Sahel “obviously increase stress on poor families and have human impacts”, they could also draw grain stocks from coastal countries into the region, which could serve to increase the availability of food in markets, and stabilize prices.
One of the reasons the 2005 crisis was so severe was because coastal food prices were even higher than in the Sahel, says FEWSNET.
Price predictions can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy, they warn, as well as encouraging residents to hoard grain, which can drive prices up further.
Alhousseini Bretaudeau, executive secretary at food security analysts CILLS (a Permanent Inter-State Committee to Prevent Drought in the Sahel) told IRIN from Abuja: “When you give strong declarations, stock-retention could occur and prices could go up further.”
Likewise, notes WFP, if governments and institutions state they will be purchasing large quantities, prices could stabilize.
Rather than speculating on future prices, which Labidi notes is a risky business, even the information that is currently available “shows that something is wrong”, says Labidi. Prices in some places have increased by over 80 percent over the five-year average, and have continued to rise rather than fall which is the usual seasonal dynamic.
Millet prices are 77 percent higher than the five-year average in Malian capital Bamako; 93 percent higher in the northern city of Gao, and up by 85 percent in the central region of Ségou, according to the UN Food and Agricultur Organisation.
Even if prices were to stabilize, there would still be a problem, said WFP, as they are already unsustainable for lots of people.
FEWSNET analysts note that the lower-than-average cereal crops could be compensated for by food imports, which for instance in Niger in 2010-11 amounted to 900,000 tons - more than double the current estimated production gap. “The current food insecurity is less a food availability problem than an access issue.”
Interviewees agreed: it is high food prices, and poor terms of trade for the most vulnerable that put food out of their reach. “The entry point [for response] is access, not availability,” said WFP market analyst Jean-Martin Bauer, noting high food prices are a greater problem than a deficit of grains, since markets will to some degree always compensate for at least part of gross food deficits.
But opinions differ on the degree to which the markets will be able to resolve the access problem.
At the December 2011 meeting of the Food Crises Prevention Network (FCPN) on the situation in the Sahel and West Africa, agencies and analysts issued a joint communiqué, stressing the need for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to keep food trade fluid across their borders.
States must “avoid any action which will by nature impede the proper functioning of the markets and cross-border trade flows,” it stated.
Protectionist measures worsened the impact of the 2005 food crisis and also posed some barriers to response in 2009-2010, which meant aid agencies had to partly source from outside of the region, upping the cost and delivery period.
CILLS’s Breteaudeau was in Abuja where he was discussing ECOWAS plans, when he spoke to IRIN. “All governments are worried,” he said, “if you give alarming information then governments start to put themselves first: the message we must continuously impart is the need for solidarity.”
But for WFP’s Bauer, the problem is that - unlike in 2009 when prices were high in one of the region’s three major trading systems (known as the eastern, central and western basins) but not the others - this year all three are exhibiting high prices for staple grains such as maize and millet.
Ghana is estimated to have a grain surplus of 240,000 tons of maize for instance, but its price is 75 percent higher now than it was in 2009.
The numbers game
Among other areas that need to be more nuanced, FEWSNET says the number of people in the Sahel who will need food assistance this year is “far smaller” than many are reporting. Oxfam stated in an early December communiqué that six million people could be highly vulnerable to food insecurity in Niger; 2.9 million in Mali; 700,000 - over quarter of the population - in Mauritania; and over two million in Burkina Faso; while in Chad 13 out of 22 of the regions could be affected by food insecurity.
Agencies should be more precise, says FEWSNET. Six million people live in the provinces and districts of Niger that are affected by low outputs, but a much smaller number of people within them are insecure and need assistance.
Further, “this crisis is not engulfing the region, it is simply distributed across it,” they say. Rather than a blanket response, targeted, localized interventions are needed.
Each area will need its own specific response, stressed Oxfam. For CILLS the key is to get enough fodder for animals - this came too little too late in 2010 - and improving pastoralists’ access to water points. For Oxfam the response priorities are: cash vouchers and/or cash-for-work; destocking before livestock prices drop; seed distributions; water provision; and rebuilding national and community emergency food stocks. NGO Save the Children, meanwhile, prioritizes supporting people’s livelihoods to stop them falling into crisis, providing free health care, and treatment for malnutrition in Niger - one of the countries predicted to be worst-affected.
Aid agency representatives IRIN spoke to recognized affected regions are scattered, but noted the areas affected are still substantial. Oxfam’s economic justice manager, Eric Hazard, told IRIN: “We never said it was a catastrophe; we just said based on the information that we have, if nothing is done, millions could be vulnerable to food insecurity.”
The tension lies in trying to rally donors to try to step up response to a chronically forgotten region in an early warning scenario which still awaits the results of several malnutrition and food security studies, said an observer. Aid appeals for West Africa are almost always under-funded: 37 percent of the 2011 request has come in thus far, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
And early warning is important, stressed Hazard: agencies rang the alarm in December 2009 during the last crisis; the media responded in February 2010 and aid agencies were only fully mobilized in May and June.
Rather than stressing division, it is time for consensus, agree agencies and analysts. “Look at the progress,” said Hazard. “In the 1970s countries didn’t even identify crises; in the 1990s they started to respond but with low capacity; in 2005 they at least had a plan in mind; now early warning systems are in place.”
There has been much talk over the past decade of improving aid effectiveness, and supporting country-led development. “Here countries are telling us there is a problem - even if the projections will change and be revised. Let them take that responsibility,” said Hazard.