Donors learning funding lessons - slowly

This year donors are stepping up more quickly to meet Sahel’s humanitarian needs compared to 2010, when they were slow to respond. However, they are still at fault for taking a quick-fix approach rather than addressing long-term disaster prevention and resilience needs, say aid groups.

As of now, over US$150 million has been pledged to respond to food insecurity, drought and nutrition needs in the Sahel, whereas at the same point in 2010 donors were doing “almost nothing”, said Amadou Sow in the Africa coordination division of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

As early as December 2011 aid agencies and national governments campaigned for aid, while OCHA released its emergency appeal - whereas in the 2010 crisis this was not released until April, far later in the lean season.

The European Commission (EC) has directed $138 million to the region, according to Cyprien Fabre, head of ECHO (EU aid body) in West Africa, who says there is “great commitment at the EU level”, with the development and humanitarian commissioners working closely together on the Sahel crisis. The EU is also expected to release longer-term funding soon.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) meanwhile, has channeled $67 million to the crisis, $25.5 million of it to the World Food Programme in Niger and Chad; France and the UK Department for International Development have each directed $10 million towards five Sahelian countries without yet specifying what is going where; the UN Central Emergency Response Fund has released $16 million of start-up funding; while Sweden, Germany, Austria and other donors have allotted smaller sums.

Most of these figures are not yet reflected in the OCHA financial tracking system which currently states that the Chad and Niger appeals are respectively 7 and 15 percent funded.

While such pledges are welcomed, the EC Humanitarian Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, recently said a conservative estimate of the needs over the next six months would be 500 million euros [US$654 million], “so there is clearly a considerable gap to fill,” noted Stephen Cockburn, West Africa campaigns and policy manager at Oxfam.

Avoid repeat mistakes

Donors may fear repeating the mistakes of the Horn of Africa, where everyone responded too late, and may also want to show that they have learned the lessons from past Sahel crises, say aid workers.

“Donors are more interested in the Sahel now,” said Fabre. “They probably want to make sure they don’t miss the opportunity to have a correct, coherent, quality response this time.”

However, some fear donors are waiting too long to specifically allocate their aid by country, positing they are waiting for more detailed figures on needs to be published. An OCHA Sahel strategy paper with specific needs in each country will be launched imminently.

Donors must not fund Chad and Niger to the neglect of other affected countries, including Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal, warns OCHA’s Sow.

Longer-term still under-funded

While pledging has been swifter, the long-term aid that Sahel experts have been pushing for for years is still not prioritized, say Sahel experts.  

“The argument [for longer-term resilience-oriented aid] has “not been won yet”, said Fabre.

A number of aid agencies are involved in longer-term resilience work, such as Oxfam’s project to give people cash transfers or cash-for-work to help vulnerable families cope with high food prices. “Some donors [the European Union and DFID] are beginning to fund this work, but as an approach it remains under-prioritized,” said Oxfam’s Cockburn.

The prevention and treatment of moderate acute malnutrition is one chronically under-funded sector in the Sahel: While over one million children are expected to face severe and life-threatening malnutrition this year, in a “normal” year the figure hovers around 800,000.

West Africa UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) nutrition specialist Robert Johnston told IRIN: “It is still difficult to ensure funding from government agencies for long-term preventative activities when there are critical life-saving interventions that they can respond to immediately. It’s much easier [for them] to justify life-saving than long-term.”

Likewise, it can be hard to get national governments on board: “In areas with low levels of education and poor healthcare systems, it is hard to plant the seed of prevention as an idea.”

However, donor attitudes here are slowly changing, he said. UNICEF programmes now come from the point of view that emergency treatment and longer-term prevention of malnutrition are two sides of the same coin. “Everyone is starting to get the message,” he said.

Aid agencies and donors should see their response to the Sahel drought as an opportunity to change their approach, said Kazimiro Rudolph-Jacondo, head of OCHA’s West Africa office in Dakar. “This is a window of opportunity to build on lessons learned from the past and to resolve these problems over the long term,” he told IRIN.