Food crisis in the Sahel: Real problem, false solutions

Published on Pambazuka News, by Tidiane Kassé, July 29, 2010.

Following food crises in 2005 and 2008, Niger is once again reeling under a famine that has reached Chad and northern Mali, with repercussions for other countries in the Sahel region. As appeals for solidarity increase, Tidiane Kassé cautions that by tackling the consequences rather than the causes of the crisis, the region’s people are likely to remain vulnerable to hunger … //


For the time being, it’s ‘open your heart to Niger’! At the end of June, the president of the Haute autorité à la sécurité alimentaire du Niger (High Authority on Food Security in Niger) launched the ‘2010 Food Crisis in Niger Programme’. It is funded by USAID and carried out by three international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), with US$2.154 million behind it.

The European Commission announced that it will provide an additional €24 million for victims of the food crisis in Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and in the north of Nigeria. Further contributions have been announced here and there. But it seems that Niger’s famine has ‘sold’ itself poorly.

In a declaration published on 9 July, co-signed by Oxfam, ACF, Acted, Care International, Save the Children, Secours Catholique, Secours Islamique and others, it was noted that ‘Despite six months of appeals, the funds obtained to respond to the crisis have been slow to arrive and insufficient. For Niger, a further US$107 million (€85 million) is needed in order to reach the amount of US$130 million announced by the United Nations. Oxfam regrets the absence of food security actors in the affected zones, notably the FICR, Intermon Oxfam, ACRA and Africare.’ And note that the response of UN agencies such the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and the WFP (World Food Programme) still cover only 50 per cent of needs.

The strategies currently developed to speed up aid – in a bid to face up to the famine in the Sahel and to make the system of alert more responsive, indeed, to increase financial means and mobile food stocks – again come back to facing the consequences of not looking into the real causes.

African agriculture has suffered a series of difficulties which, over 30 years, have left it vulnerable to the smallest of changes on both the international market and climatically. Agricultural policies applied by states, under donors’ pressure, have in effect turned their back on policies which, formerly, assured technical assistance to producers, backed up by a price-stabilisation mechanism and subsidies for commodities.

The fragility of this sector has been reinforced by an all-out liberalisation and the opening of markets to imported products, something which has practically strangled a scarcely competitive African agriculture. Today African markets are crumbling under the weight of Asian and European labels and so on, save in rare pockets of resistance and alternatives where the ‘local consumer’ is promoted. In this way, in a few decades, agricultural practices, in both urban and rural environments, have changed.

We could go even further towards the worst of it and look at the development of biofuels and the extent to which more and more land is being diverted away from food production. Essentially, we will be growing to power cars rather than fill granaries. And in July this year, Burkina Faso has inaugurated its first industrial unit of production, while the country remains vulnerable in the face of a food crisis.

A year ago, Djibo Bagna – president of the Peasant Association of Niger, agro-breeder of his state and who became president of ROPPA (Réseau des organisations de producteurs et de paysans d’Afrique de l’Ouest) – outlined the terms of a crisis already known by the ‘peasants’ sense’. He said:

‘Previously, we would work for three months and be able to eat throughout the year. A field of 100 hectares would produce 300 bundles of millet. Now, with the same area, it’s hard to get 40 bundles, because the soil is worn away and the rain is less reliable. Two, three months after a harvest, the food is used up. People are forced to look into other ways of making a living. The problem is that today, such income is not enough as all the prices have gone up. Two years ago, a 100kg sack of maize would be around 10,000 CFA. Today, it costs around 22,000 CFA. It’s unbearable!

‘Our areas have come to resemble the food crises which followed the drought of the 1970s. And it hasn’t stopped since. In 2005 and 2007, for example, millet completely dried up. Before, our governments supported agriculture: agronomists worked with farmers, livestock vaccination was free… But since structural adjustment, our governments have gone away from agriculture. Of course, when this sector involves 85 per cent of the population, this has consequences: lower production, a rural exodus, growing slums, with everything that that implies like poverty, idleness and delinquency…

‘Today, in the smallest village, people eat bread, milk and coffee… This wasn’t part of our customs; we used to eat maize-based dough, sorghum and millet. But when you can’t live anymore from your field and you’re reliant on others (neighbours, food aid), you eat what you’re given.

‘In 2005, while Niger lay in fear of famine [editor: From the end of 2004 to the summer of 2005, the country endured a terrible famine caused by drought and a locust invasion], there was food in Burkina Faso, in Ghana, in Benin. Instead of getting food from these neighbouring countries, the politicians opted to import it from Europe and Taiwan. This costs more and is not adapted to our customs.

‘Niger is a country of the Sahel. But the “dallo” (tablecloth) is not very deep. When predictions are poor, the authorities could develop areas so that locals can work on irrigation. But agriculture is not a priority for our politicians.’

The challenge, in the face of these recurrent food crises in Africa, is to make agriculture more human, to think of it according to its original function. The foundation of real food sovereignty lies in the promotion and consolidation of family agriculture, as well as the development of an agro-ecology which offers the best antidote to the wasting-away of fragile ecosystems at the mercy of deregulation. Thirty years after the new agricultural policies imposed as part of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), the failure and the causes of the failure no longer escape anybody. In a commentary published on 30 April, a Burkinabé paper commented:

‘There is a need to ask ourselves how, after 50 years of independence, these countries have yet to achieve self-sufficiency in food. Can we only speak of autonomy when we are hungry and when we’re unable to feed ourselves without external help?

‘In other words, a starving man won’t be a free man, as another would say. Education, health and food remain the three indispensible factors to initiate development. “A hungry stomach has no ears”, as the saying goes. And without self-sufficiency, we can’t talk of development.

‘Let’s hope that international solidarity can come to the aid of Nigeriens. It’s the fault of their leaders that they’re in this position. Cultural methods and bad governance are the precursors to this situation. The improper character to agriculture of our soils won’t be a pretext for carelessness, because countries like India, China and – to an extent – Israel, who got off to a bad start, have been able to achieve self-sufficiency by overcoming the natural obstacles which confronted them thanks to appropriate policies and new cultural approaches. It is right to rethink agricultural policy in sub-Saharan Africa. For the gallant heart, nothing is impossible!’[4]

Gallant hearts there will always be. (full long text).

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