Due to erratic rainfall and failed harvests, high food prices, and rising conflict, more than seven million people across the Sahel region of western Africa are at risk of plunging into crisis when the lean season begins this spring.

We know this as a result of our investments into early warning systems that monitor rainfall, harvests, market prices, climatic conditions and nutritional status.

As a result, on February 15, 2012, I attended an unprecedented event in with Rome that brought together  assembled leaders from the United Nations agencies, European Union, and USAID, as well as representatives of affected governments and non-governmental organization.

It was a heartening and remarkable convergence on the need to mobilize for early integrated action in response to the early warnings in the Sahel, with an emphasis on a smart, targeted response that builds resilience and links to longer term development. We committed to working across the relief to development divide and across agencies.

Our commitment is already in action. U.S. assistance to the Sahel region supports national and regional structures that promote food security and nutrition, while also providing short-term assistance to vulnerable families. Our focus is on treatment for acute malnutrition and cash-based programs that help families, especially women,  restore livelihoods and enable them to purchase what they need — usually food or medical services.

We are especially concerned with reaching malnourished children under two, when it is vital for them to receive the nutrients needed for proper development.

While at the event, I announced that USAID is providing an additional $33 million in humanitarian funding in the coming weeks to help meet needs in the Sahel.  This contribution will bring the total USAID humanitarian assistance to the Sahel food insecurity crisis to more than $270 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.  And our emergency assistance is in addition to U.S. longer-term programs to alleviate poverty, improve health and economic opportunity, and mitigate and resolve conflict in the region.

I left the meeting to travel to Niger and Burkina Faso in order to talk directly with local communities, partners and government officials about their perspectives on the drought as we approach the lean season in the Sahel.