I recently returned from Niger and Mauritania, in Africa’s Sahel region, assessing nutrition-focused humanitarian assistance. This was not my first trip to the region, as I was also there with USAID in 2010 when a failed harvest and poor pasture conditions led to food insecurity conditions nationwide and a significant rise in acute malnutrition among young children. This year, without much time for families and communities to recover and restore livelihoods, we are again facing a humanitarian crisis. Another drought, coupled with high food prices, and conflict in northern Mali displacing some 250,000 people, often to areas with limited resources and capacity, means that millions of people may need emergency assistance in the coming weeks and months, and acute malnutrition rates are again climbing.
The causes of hunger and malnutrition in the Sahel are complex and deeply rooted. Even with a good harvest, particularly vulnerable communities cannot afford to buy available food in the market. Poor health care, sanitation, and feeding practices are also major contributors to malnutrition. However, a drought and failed harvest makes it that much worse. The hardship, food insecurity and acute malnutrition vary by district, village and community, and public health and nutrition monitoring must be very specific and localized to identify existing pockets of need.
We are indeed facing a crisis, but I am encouraged by what is being done differently, by ways we have applied lessons learned in the Sahel during food crises in 2010 and 2005, though we still have a long way to go. Improved forecasting of malnutrition cases, earlier initiation of programs, better relief agency coordination, all add up to keeping more children alive and well. Especially for children under 5, whose growth and development is most at risk from acute malnutrition, we are seeing the impact of more effective health monitoring, recognition of need, and response.
In the Sahel, USAID’s approach supports national and regional structures that promote food security and nutrition, while providing short-term assistance to vulnerable populations – such as food assistance and treatment for acute malnutrition. We are supporting nutrition pipelines to ensure adequate stockpiles of ready-to-use therapeutic foods are in place while training health staff and volunteers, and increasing nutrition screening and nutrition education.
For example, in Burkina Faso, we are working with grandmothers as the main messengers for nutrition behavioral change such as exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months. In the 15 villages in the program, exclusive breastfeeding is no longer considered taboo. In Chad, we are teaching mothers how to prevent and recognize the signs of malnutrition in their children. Growth monitoring sessions helped identify malnourished children which resulted in therapeutic feeding interventions to help the children regain lost weight.
We face a major humanitarian challenge in the Sahel, no question, and it will get worse as the lean season sets in and existing household food stocks are depleted. However, I am encouraged that we have learned some important lessons from past crises. The U.S., in partnership with other donors, has taken early action in response to early warnings, and together, we are saving lives.