Article published: January 2012, updated: March 2012
Tristan Clements, a member of World Vision Australia’s Humanitarian & Emergency Affairs team gives an insight to the complexities of the unfolding food crisis in West Africa. Tristan worked with World Vision’s Niger office from mid-2005 to mid-2006.
Part One of Two
As many as 20 million people are reported to be facing a food crisis in the region of West Africa. The nations of Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mauritania all report areas at risk, with Niger reporting that as much as 60% of its population are vulnerable, and some estimates saying that 35% of the population have already run out of food.
This crisis is building on the heels of the Horn of Africa famine, in which as many as 13 million people were placed at risk, and a recent report suggested between 50 and100,000 people died as a result of the slow response by the international community. In the Horn of Africa, humanitarian organisations like World Vision tracked the growing crisis from late 2010, and from early 2011 began raising the alarm, but there was little international engagement until mid-2011 when the UN declared a famine in regions of Somalia, and there was a sudden flurry of media and donor engagement.
Nobody wants to see the same thing happen in West Africa.While the situation in West Africa is alarming and must be taken seriously, it also needs to be carefully understood to ensure any response is appropriate, and also avoids hyperbole that could disillusion donors and the media, and undermine future efforts at raising concern about building humanitarian emergencies.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues:
Of 187 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (which looks at a range of indicators to rank countries according to their level of development), West Africa includes most of the poorest. Of 17 West African nations, 15 are ranked as “Low Human Development”. The four landlocked nations of Niger (186), Chad (183), Burkina Faso (181) and Mali (175) come in as some of the most underdeveloped in the world- Niger 2nd only to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The countries all sit in the extremely marginal band of the Sahel, the semi-arid to arid belt that, from south to north, transitions from mixed grassland to full desert and is characterised by low, uncertain rainfall and high rates of soil erosion. In addition, they have no access to a seaport, further restricting their developmental potential. Some petroleum deposits in Chad and mining in Niger provide a basic but fragile and heavily exploited export market.
The historical legacy of the region as a French colony is that the countries experienced minimal development prior to their independence, with fragile governance systems and very poor physical or social infrastructure such as roads, hospitals or schools. The underdeveloped status of the West African region vis-a-vis the rest of the world has not improved in the last 50 years.
West Africa is no stranger to food emergencies, with Niger being the prominent example over the last decade. In 2005, the media reported a ‘famine’ around the middle of the year (in reality an acute nutrition crisis) which affected millions of households through to mid-2006. It had previously experienced drought and famine in 1995, and again faced an emergency in 2010. While these are acute events, they are best understood in the context of the long-term vulnerability of the nations themselves, and the region as a whole.
There is a general assumption that famine, and more broadly, food crises, are due mainly to environmental factors-poor rains, failed harvests, soil degradation and-over time-population growth. The reality is, while environmental factors may play a part in food emergencies, what we actually need to understand is that an acute food or nutrition crisis that leads to the deaths of children is due to an interaction between long-term trends and short-term shocks.
Let’s take a step back for a moment.
While the media uses the term ‘famine’ very easily, a true famine is a very specific, technical event which is defined by the UN in terms of the actual recorded death rate, the rate of under-five acute malnutrition, and the regional food availability situation. Over the last 20 years, there have been very few true famines- the only recent example being the Horn of Africa last year.
Most often, what gets reported to us as a ‘famine’ is usually either a situation of acute food insecurity, or a nutrition crisis. In acute food insecurity, vulnerable families usually lack access to a sufficient food supply, which is not the same as saying the food isn’t there, only that there are people who are, for a variety of reasons, are not able to access that food.
A case in point occurred during the 2005 Niger crisis, when food prices in local markets rose so much that rural families could not afford to purchase it, even though it was there. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale identifies 5 levels of food insecurity, from ‘no crisis’ to ‘famine’ which are used in early warning analysis.
In a nutrition crisis, specific portions of a population are clinically malnourished, that is, are not successfully processing sufficient nutrients to support good health. This, too, is a technical term, and while there are a few ways to classify malnutrition, the one most widely used by the humanitarian community in an emergency is to compare someone’s weight against their height for an average of that population. The extent of their deviation below the average will classify them as moderately or severely acutely malnourished. Malnutrition crises tend to affect young children (under 5 years old) and pregnant or lactating mothers, with deaths recorded almost exclusively among children.
It’s also worth noting that a nutrition crisis (what is termed ‘acute’ malnutrition) differs in part to ‘chronic’ malnutrition.
Chronic malnutrition relates to the long-term effects of ongoing malnutrition, while acute relates to the short-term effects. Chronic malnutrition is measured in terms of weight-for-age, and populations exposed to chronic malnutrition become stunted. While acute malnutrition leads to wasting, greater vulnerability to disease, and ultimately death, chronic malnutrition leads to poor physical development, the outcome also being greater vulnerability to disease, but also poor cerebral development which affects things like education and, ultimately, a nation’s society and economy- a huge and devastating reach when applied to an entire region, as is the case for much of West Africa. Chronic malnutrition also makes populations more vulnerable to the events that can lead to acute malnutrition- their bodies simply don’t have the same reserves to deal with short-term food shortages, for example.
Tristan has worked with World Vision on emergency management since 2003. A member of the Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs team and formerly a member of World Vision's Global Rapid Response Team, Tristan has supported dozens of emergency programs in more than 20 countries. He has held emergency management posts in West Africa and the Pacific, with more recent deployments covering the conflict in Sri Lanka, Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, the malnutrition crisis in Niger, and most recently, the Horn of Africa drought and hunger emergency.
From mid-2005 to mid-2006, Tristan worked with World Vision’s Niger Drought Response.
Tristan has a Bachelor Degree in Geography and a Masters in Development and the Environment. His work has a global focus, with emphasis on emergency response, fragile states and aid worker safety. He is also an avid photographer.