Hunger season has arrived in the Sahel region of West Africa, where millions of people are at risk of food insecurity each year. This year, the U.N. estimates that 20 million people—nearly 13 percent of the region’s population—will be at risk of hunger and will lack enough food for a healthy and productive life. Decreased food availability, inefficient markets, high prices, and improper nutrition all contribute to an ongoing cycle of hunger and poverty.

Building upon lessons learned from the 2012 Sahel crisis—one of the worst food crises in Africa the past decade—USAID is actively addressing the underlying causes of hunger while also focusing on saving lives and helping communities withstand future shocks.

Here are five ways our teams are curbing the hunger season in the Sahel:

Women participating in food-for-work activities in Tillaberi,  Niger. / USAID, Rebecca Goldman

Women participating in food-for-work activities in Tillaberi, Niger. / USAID, Rebecca Goldman

1. By Building Resilience

Drought, climate change, conflict and bad harvests are examples of the shocks that families throughout West Africa face every year. Throughout the Sahel, USAID is committed to helping households and communities mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks. In 2013, USAID launched Resilience in the Sahel-Enhanced (RISE), a five-year initiative to address root causes of vulnerability in the region and better integrate relief and development programming. Interventions will include transfers (food, cash or vouchers) for activities that improve communities such as land regeneration, reforestation and water development; social investments — such as those in education, nutrition, and family planning; and investments that increase economic opportunities, such as livelihood diversification, value chain development, and market facilitation. Through this initiative, RISE aims to reach 1.9 million people facing recurrent crises and chronic poverty, and help ensure that these communities stay firmly on the path to development.

A Savings and Internal Lending Committee group keeps records of savings and loans. / USAID, Anne Shaw

A Savings and Internal Lending Committee group keeps records of savings and loans. / USAID, Anne Shaw

2. By Providing Access to Banking

For many people, one disaster can mean a spiral into extreme poverty. Banking services allow people the chance to financially prepare by giving them the opportunity to save for unexpected expenses. In Burkina Faso, we are working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to reach vulnerable people through the establishment of savings and internal lending communities. As a result, more than 9,000 people will have access to small loans that will help them earn a living through activities like growing and selling peppers, or making their own peanut paste to bring to market. In addition, CRS is hosting small animal and seed voucher fairs where people can access healthy livestock and high-quality seeds for household planting.

Community members gather around a newly rehabilitated well. / Africare

Community members gather around a newly rehabilitated well. / Africare

3. By Teaching about Health and Sanitation

Each year, approximately 575,000 children in the Sahel die of malnutrition and its health-related illnesses—underscoring the urgent need to help these communities prepare for the hunger season. In Chad, we are partnering with World Vision to reduce acute malnutrition and enhance the resilience of 8,500 households in Guera Region. According to a 2012 study conducted in the region by the International Rescue Committee, diarrhea and fever are more significant factors in malnutrition than lack of food alone. The majority of the population lacks appropriate knowledge, attitude, and practice of sanitation, hygiene and hand-washing, all essential to avoiding illness and preventing malnutrition. To address this, the program provides trainings to vulnerable families on hygiene and nutrition to improve the health of young children, and pregnant women and new mothers. In exchange for participating in trainings, households receive cash-based food vouchers, giving families the liberty to choose their foods while promoting key proteins and micronutrients required for children under 5 and pregnant women.

Beneficiaries use cash transfers and food vouchers to meet their food needs. / Jessica Hartl, USAID

Beneficiaries use cash transfers and food vouchers to meet their food needs. / Jessica Hartl, USAID

4. By Using Innovative Food Aid Tools

Ongoing violence in northern Mali throughout the past year has exacerbated hunger and impeded food aid efforts. In Mali, we are working with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) to reduce overall food insecurity through food assistance delivered from the U.S. in addition to cash transfers and food vouchers throughout Gao, Mopti, Tombouctou, and Kidal regions. Market assessments have shown a favorable environment for cash transfers and food vouchers in urban and semi-urban areas, which help families increase access to more diverse, nutritious foods in local markets. We are also supporting food-assistance-for-asset activities, in which families work to build community assets in exchange for food assistance. By using varied food assistance interventions, USAID is able to respond appropriately and best address the food needs of vulnerable families affected by conflict.

Food baskets in Mauritania. / Counterpart International

Food baskets in Mauritania. / Counterpart International

5. By Preventing Child Malnutrition

Malnutrition is the underlying cause of one out of three deaths of children under 5 in the developing world. Often, families have access to healthy foods, but are unaware of how to feed their children properly. In Mauritania, we are working with Action Contre la Faim (ACF) to prevent malnutrition and improve food security in the Guidimaka Region. ACF, alongside local organizations, will promote appropriate feeding practices for infants and young children through cooking demonstrations and nutrition education for community members, including mothers, fathers, religious leaders, and local health workers. Community volunteers will conduct frequent screenings to identify children at risk of malnutrition and refer those in need of treatment to health centers.

So far this year, we have already provided more than $205 million in humanitarian assistance to the region to ensure food is available and ready to be distributed to people in need before the height of the agricultural lean season — which ranges from June through September depending on the country.

But humanitarian assistance will not solve the larger problem. USAID remains committed to helping people across the Sahel build longer-term resilience  and providing them with the knowledge and tools to break the cycle of crisis—and hopefully one day, avoid the hunger season altogether.


Dina Esposito is the Director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace and Jeremy Konyndyk is the Director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance