• Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Resilience building as panacea for food insecurity


 Resilience’ has become the buzzword in international development circles in recent times. The ability to withstand adversity and bounce back is a simple definition of this word. The meaning in international development parlance is not different, but it is only a little bit profound and amenable to wide application. It is currently a subject of high profile debate in several institutions.

This ubiquitous word resonated again in a recent report on the international humanitarian response to the 2012 West Africa Sahel food crisis. This report is in form of a briefing paper by the international relief and development agency, Oxfam, on the assessment of the response to the food crisis. The report has Elise Ford, Oxfam’s Sahel Humanitarian Policy & Advocacy Lead, as the author. Entitled ‘Learning the Lessons? Assessing the response to the 2012 food crisis in the Sahel to build resilience for the future’, the report in the main underscores the imperative for “all actors to seek to develop a deeper understanding of what makes poor people more vulnerable to shocks and stresses and what builds their resilience”. Before the crisis, many families had not recovered from the previous crises. A situation, the report says, contributes to relatively small shocks having huge impact.

The Sahel region of West Africa, which includes the northern fringes of Nigeria, is known for its ecosystem fragility. The extreme aridity of this zone, including desertification, exacerbated and complicated by climate variability, necessitates the search for coping and adaptation mechanisms to reduce the vulnerability of the inhabitant communities. It is also noteworthy that behind this adversity lie great potentials to drive development if only ingenious strategies are developed.

The report acknowledged that the response in 2012 was better than the previous ones in 2005, 2008 and 2010, but there were still some ‘critical shortcomings’. There were some overlooked deep-seated inequalities that made some families more vulnerable than others. “We must learn from the 2012 experience to better prevent and manage future crises,” the report said. It recommended that agencies and institutions should profit from the momentum around the concept of resilience to further understand how to make responses more effective.

An assessment of the intervention of governments, donors and agencies showed what the report called ‘mixed performance’. While early warning signs were there, the various bodies were not in agreement as to the severity of the crisis. Several meetings held by development agencies in the beginning of 2012 simply acknowledged that the indicators were there but the extent and gravity of the impending crisis were hazy. The only thing that was common knowledge was that humanitarian and development agencies were to brace up for increased activity owing to envisaged critical food insufficiency in the region. The previous year had witnessed erratic and insufficient rainfalls and harvests were poor as a consequence. Agriculture is largely, if not totally, rain-fed in the region.

Apart from the weakened capacity of actors, especially the governments, as a result of inadequate and untimely funding, there were political factors that militated against effective response. The presidential election in Senegal overshadowed the onset of the crisis in the first quarter of the year 2012. The government could not acknowledge the ugly situation for fear of losing political grounds. The ruling party lost in the election anyway and the new government was quick to acknowledge the crisis in April. But disaster had already set in. In Mali, serious political instability even complicated the crisis.

Despite the fact that the response in 2012 was better than the previous ones, there were still many families that did not receive assistance. While many out of the 18 million people affected across nine countries in the region received nutritional assistance in some way, it is on record that more than 5 million people did not receive the seeds, tools and fertiliser needed to plant for the next harvest.

To get things right, there is need to recognise that the crisis is not over. According to the report, there are over 10 million people that still need help. In other words, food crisis is simply a momentary escalation of a perennial situation of food insufficiency. Communities should be assisted to build their resilience effectively and be in a position to withstand future crises. There is need for investment in smallholder agriculture, local and national food reserves and social protection programmes. There should be proper understanding of degrees of vulnerability so that support is targeted at the poorest or weakest. Capacity of local actors should be strengthened and regional bodies made to live up to their responsibilities with regard to the prevention and management of future crises.

West Africa is bedevilled by mass poverty and the situation in the Sahel part of the region is compounded by the fragile ecosystem. Amazingly, the map of political instability and weak governance structures in West Africa is almost the same as that of the Sahel. There is need for more serious actions to tackle the issue of recurrent food crises in the region.

The report therefore recommends that all actors should, as it were, be riding on the crest of the current wave of resilience. The United Nations should be mobilised to render more support to programmes aimed at building the resilience of vulnerable communities. All actors should develop a deeper understanding of what makes poor people more vulnerable to shocks and stresses. There should be more effective food crisis analyses to guide measures aimed at addressing its root causes within a context where the dividing line between humanitarianism and development is blurred. Governments and regional organisations must be committed to delivering pro-poor development strategies while donors should fast-track the development of resilience strategies.

It is noteworthy that beyond the ECOWAS Regional Agricultural Policy (ECOWAP), regional decision makers are discussing new concepts on food security such as ‘Zero Hunger’, ‘Regional Resilience’, ‘Regional Strategic Food Reserves’, and so on. But Souleymane Zeba, Oxfam’s West Africa regional director, pointed out in reaction to the report that “unless regional active citizenship is scaled up by committed ‘watchdogs’, these will remain mere suggestions”.

Should the recommendations of this report be seen as “mere suggestions”? I do not think so. They are desiderata. All actors must act seriously and be seen to be doing so. The governments in the region remain very important actors not just in combating momentary food crises but also in ensuring food security. Existing agricultural policies must be fully implemented and adequate budgetary allocation made to incentivise food production. Rural smallholder farmers most of whom are women constitute the majority of farmers in the region and account for more than 80 percent of local food production. They are yearning for increased investment and support in form of access and title to land, credit and technical input.

The question is not if there will be another food crisis. It is rather: when is it going to happen? Is it this year or next year?



Ezeala, based in Dakar, Senegal, is regional communication and campaigns coordinator for an international relief and development agency


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