Avert this food crisis before it’s too late

THIS week, as world leaders gather in Maryland in the USA for the G8 meeting, I am in Burkina Faso in West Africa visiting communities on the brink of disaster.

Since I arrived, I have witnessed feeding centres struggling to cope with malnourished children. I have seen families who have used all their food and money and sold livestock in a bid to survive, but have run out of options. I have seen communities struggling to support each other but after failed harvests, there simply isn’t enough food and water to go around.

It seems a world away from the high-profile international summit, but an urgent response to the critical food crisis in eight countries in West Africa must be at the top of the agenda for G8 leaders. This is not — yet — a desperate situation in which nothing can be done. An urgent response can still prevent the worst ravages of this food crisis and prevent needless deaths.

It will cost significantly less if the world acts now instead of waiting until we are facing an even greater humanitarian emergency. Donors need to spend now to save lives and save cash later. It makes economic sense and morally it’s the only thing to do.

The UN estimates that about 18.4m people across eight countries do not have enough food to survive until the next harvest. This situation has not crept up unnoticed. Early warning systems put in place in this fragile region, systems set up to help us respond quickly, have indicated since the autumn that food supplies would be insufficient to meet basic needs this year.

Erratic rains and pests last year decimated harvests of poor farmers and made pasture scarce for herders. Cereal production is down 25% from last year. National reserves are low and prices are high, 40% up across Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mali. It means that even where markets are stocked, food is out of the reach of many.

This dry land on the Sahara is already prone to shocks. In a “normal” year, about 300,000 children die from malnutrition. Communities have not yet recovered from droughts since 2005; many people are still in debt taken on in a desperate bid to get food last time round.

Oxfam, with others in the international aid community such as Concern, has been sounding the alarm about a looming food crisis since last year. We called for a rapid mobilisation of resources to avoid a repeat of the East Africa disaster last year, in which tens of thousands died and millions suffered needlessly after a response that came too late.

Oxfam’s report A Dangerous Delay, published jointly with Save the Children, documented that thousands of lives and millions of euro were lost last year by the failure of international donors to respond to early warning systems. In East Africa, funding only began to trickle in after the tipping point had been reached, months after the early warning systems signalled a crisis. It came too late. Mass displacement, malnutrition, and needless loss of life were the result.

But West Africa is not condemned to suffer East Africa’s fate. The region’s governments have acknowledged the depth of the coming crisis and are harnessing food reserves and resources to get help to those who need it. In recent days I have seen Oxfam’s staff and partners distributing food and seeds, running cash for work programmes and providing access to safe water.

Locals tell us the peak of the lean season is expected in July or August and that the scale and severity of the crisis will be influenced in the coming weeks by the responses their governments and donors make now. Donors have begun to provide funding, with the EU leading the way. The Irish Government is playing its part too, with an initial commitment of €5m.

But despite early commitments from the international community, there remains a yawning funding gap of about €332m.

The G8 leaders must urgently step up their contributions and disburse monies quickly, so the large-scale humanitarian response can be launched before the crisis hits its peak. Tackling the underlying causes of the food crises — through investment in sustainable agriculture, social protection measures, and building food reserves — will also be critical.

If we take the right steps we can prevent the suffering of millions and the deaths of thousands from hunger, and the crushing and sustained poverty these crises leave in their wake We must also improve how the humanitarian system responds when warnings of a crisis are given.

We know the steps we must take to tackle these crises. We have the power to prevent thousands of deaths. What we need is the will.

* Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland


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