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SENEGAL: Change of direction in hunger response

DAKAR, 7 May 2012 (IRIN) - One day after being sworn in on 2 April, Senegal’s new President Macky Sall reversed months of public denial of the hunger affecting over 800,000 of his people - part of the Sahel-wide crisis affecting 16 million inhabitants - by calling on partners to help the country get food to those in need. UN agencies and NGOs are struggling to raise enough money to get programmes working so they can catch up with the steadily rising number of hungry people.

After Sall appealed to bilateral and multilateral partners to help rural areas affected by food deficits on 3 April, Abdoul Aziz Diallo, President of the Senegalese Red Cross (SRC), told IRIN: “We knew about the situation but the previous regime did not want to make a public declaration, since they thought it would prove their agricultural programmes were not efficient.”

Such projects included the Grand Agricultural Offensive for Food Security (GOANA), launched by ex-President Abdoulaye Wade to make Senegal self-sufficient in key crops.

In view of this approach, the SRC, UN agencies and some donors - who act only on official government request - felt they were unable to launch appeals or a major response.

Few people in the capital, Dakar, are even aware that there is a food crisis across much of the country. “You don’t hear about it on the news - I knew they were facing difficulties in my village [Niakhar in Fatick region of central Senegal] but not that it was across the country,” said Dakar resident Ephie Diam, 31.

About 810 000 Senegalese are facing hunger, according to a joint study in February 2012 by the Senegalese government and the World Food Programme (WFP). In the 2011 harvest season, cereal production fell by 36 percent compared to 2010, and the production of peanuts, Senegal’s main cash crop, fell by 59 percent.

The lean season, which in good years starts in July, began in March this year, four months earlier than usual, while market prices for local cereals are 20 percent higher than in 2011, reflecting a trend prevalent across the Sahel.

“We have to be very quick - households have very limited food stocks and prices are very high. People have already started to sell their cattle, to get indebted, and to skip meals. They can’t do that for long,” warned Ingeborg Maria Breuer, the WFP representative in Senegal.


Photo: Jane Labous/IRIN
An inhabitant of Mbar Toubab village bringing back water from the nearest well
In the village of Kalasan, 13km from St Louis, a badly affected region in northern Senegal, farmer Salimata Dueye, who has five children, said her harvest failed in 2011. “It is a terrible year,” she told IRIN. “I do not have enough to feed my children.”

The most recent nutritional study, by UNICEF and the Senegalese Ministry of Health in December 2011, showed that by the end of January 2012, around 20,000 children across the country would be acutely malnourished, with the worst-hit areas in Matam, in the northeast, with a rate of 14.9 percent acute malnutrition, and Djourbel in western Senegal, with 10 percent.

Response kicking off

“To be able to talk about it [the problem] has completely changed the work environment,“ Jan Eijkenaar, the West Africa humanitarian affairs director of ECHO, the EU aid body, told IRIN, reflecting the widespread feeling in the aid community. Moussa Bakhayokho, an agricultural adviser to the Prime Minister, said the government has met with its partners to assess the situation.

Breuer said WFP is now “getting all the [political] support we need at local and national level”. In the new atmosphere, the agency launched a food distribution campaign at the end of April, aimed at supporting 806 000 people between now and October, the end of the lean season. The first food distribution took place on 30 April in Ziguinchor, in the south - usually one of the country’s bread-baskets but this year hit by crop failures and food shortages.

However the agency faces reluctance among donors and has only been able to raise US$27 million of the US$52 million it requires to buy food. “Senegal is normally perceived as stable place, so it is very hard to explain [to donors] that it is also affected [by the Sahel crisis]”, said WFP’s Breuer. Two-thirds of WFP’s required food stocks are still missing. It also plans to hand out cash vouchers between May and June to help people purchase goods from local markets, but only 45 percent of the needs are covered, said Breuer. Finally, the organization has just 12 percent of the funding it needs for “blanket feeding” - giving nutritional supplements to all of the 120,0000 moderately malnourished children aged under two to prevent them from becoming severely malnourished - which is a vital prevention strategy, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Chief of Health and Child Survival and Development in Senegal, Xavier Crespin.

NGOs face similar problems. The SRC - a crucial partner in food distribution - has received no money at all, as it could only launch its funding proposal on 27 April because of the political reluctance. Oxfam America has secured just 10-15 percent of its budget. Even UNICEF, which started early, has only received one-quarter of the $4 million it needs to fight malnutrition.

Malnutrition – “small step ahead”

The malnutrition treatment battle is a small step ahead, with significant stocks of Plumpy’Nut - sent by UNICEF and used to treat acutely malnourished children - already in place, said Mame Mbayame Dionne, chief of the food nutrition and child survival division at the Health Ministry. Up to 40 percent of her personnel have been trained in malnutrition treatment programmes just started this month.

Though malnutrition is often a taboo subject for leaders, in Senegal the previous authorities were less reluctant to talk about it than the widespread food crisis, said Crespin. Nutrition programmes “would have been implemented anyway”, said ECHO’s Eijkenaar, and ongoing work such as a USAID programme to encourage families to diversify their diets continues over the long term. Action against Hunger, a Spanish organization, for example, started taking care of malnutrition cases in Matam at the beginning of April.

But even malnutrition combined with a food crisis in Senegal is a hard sell. Big donors do not think 20 000 malnourished children is a lot, perhaps particularly in a Sahel context, where for instance 320,000 children are estimated to be severely acutely malnourished in Niger this year.

“We are in the context of giving early warning of a catastrophe, so the message [to respond] doesn’t get through. People need horrific images to mobilize,” said Isaac Massaga, West Africa humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam America.

Everyone hopes Senegal’s change of government will help reverse the trend.

Cattle, agriculture, overlooked

When it comes to long-term aid to boost Senegal’s agricultural output, progress looks to be slow. The new administration says it will grant $69 million to help farmers access agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and tools, but this is hardly more than in 2011, according to government adviser Bakhayokho.

Apart from a pledge by the Islamic Development Bank it is not known who will cover the $23 million needed to feed cattle that drought has left without pasture. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has so far only received one-third of the money it needs to help 60 000 agro-pastoralists to boost their crop production and feed their animals, their principal means of survival.

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Theme (s): Environment, Food Security, Natural Disasters, Sahel Crisis, Water & Sanitation,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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