9 December 2011
Rob Bailey

Rob Bailey

Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House


There are loud and clear early warnings of another food crisis in the Sahel next year. Will there be enough early action to see it off?

East Africa's food crisis continues and a second is now unfolding to the West, in the Sahel, that should start hitting the headlines in spring next year. 

Why spring 2012? The answer lies in the remarkably predictable onset of food crisis, starting with an event such as drought or pest infestation, then a poor harvest leading to a grain shortfall. After this, remaining food stocks are run-down, and people turn to short-term coping strategies. For those in rural areas, this includes selling-off weakened livestock; as poor quality animals flood the market, their price plummets whilst the cost of food continues to rise, shifting the terms of trade against the rural poor. At this point, people migrate to cities in search of food or employment, depressing wages and competing for food in urban areas too.

The crisis peaks when food stocks are fully depleted and all there is to do is wait for the next harvest or hope for assistance. In the Sahel, this 'hunger gap' usually runs from April to August. Right now, countries in the region are facing significant grain shortfalls following poor harvests due to erratic rains and pest attacks. Niger saw the cereal harvest down more than a quarter on the previous year, and now faces a shortfall of 500,000 tonnes, worse than in the run-ups to the 2005 and 2010 crises. The gathering crisis is also being exacerbated by a collapse in remittances from the Nigerian diaspora in Libya, and increasing food demand as many of them return home.

Recognising the Problem

In October, Niger's President appealed for international assistance, and this week the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response expressed fear that the response may come too late. The importance of early action cannot be understated. It allows humanitarian agencies to build capacity and undertake interventions designed to prevent vulnerable people reaching crisis point, rather than trying to reach them when they are starving and logistical capacity is low.

There are two important points here. First, the President of Niger apparently had no qualms about standing up in front of his country, acknowledging the crisis they faced, and appealing for outside assistance. This is to be welcomed. A key barrier to translating early warnings into early action in other crises has been the reluctance of affected governments to recognise the problem and request assistance. Second, an important donor is acknowledging the donor community’s history of failure in responding to early warnings in a timely fashion, the other main problem.

Early Action Steps for Governments and Agencies

These are encouraging signs, but on their own are not enough to precipitate the early action needed to avert the looming crisis. Millions of people now face hunger in Niger, Chad, Mali. Mauritania and Burkina Faso. These governments  have a responsibility to do what they can to avert crisis: ensure access to humanitarian agencies, undertake domestic efforts to reach the most vulnerable, acknowledge the problem and appeal for assistance. 

Humanitarian agencies must make the case to donors for a large-scale early mobilization of funds. They must demonstrate how early interventions will save more lives and lower the cost of the response, and they must provide no-regret and least regret options that donors can fund knowing they will bring benefits no matter how the crisis unfolds. All the donors must do is act now.