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Niger: Learning the lessons from the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel and helping more effectively

Source: European Commission Humanitarian Aid department
Country: Mali, Niger

Kristalina Georgieva
European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
High-level event on the Sahel, WFP / Rome

20 February 2013

Let me begin by thanking the World Food Programme, and Ertharin Cousin in particular, for organizing this event. It is great to see so many of the participants from last year's event. And great also to see Romano Prodi on the panel.

In the business we are in, we usually meet because something dramatic is happening, and because we want other people to be alarmed by it. That is why we met here a year ago, to ring the alarm bells at what looked like it could turn into a massive humanitarian catastrophe across the Sahel.

But today, we meet for a "lessons learned" not on what went wrong – but on what went right. Let's be clear: last year was not an easy one for the Sahel. But we did avert a major catastrophe. That doesn't make for big newspaper headlines – but it does merit taking stock together. To make sure we head off the next famine, too, and the one after that.

Let's remind ourselves of some basic figures: in 2005, an estimated 250,000 people died of famine in Niger alone. In 2010, around 50,000 people died of famine in Niger. In 2012, the number was probably insignificant. So what had changed?

Most of the key elements for 'getting it right' were actually set out in the joint statement from last year's event here in Rome. But I want to set out four points that I think have been key.

First: we all acted early. Governments in the region, regional organizations (including notably ECOWAS), UN agencies, NGOs, donors. In Niger, for example, the first signals came in November 2011. And the government recognized without delay that it had a problem. By February and March 2012, the response was well under way. We prepositioned staff, food, and supplies for therapeutic feeding. As donors we increased funding massively in January 2012. The pipelines were funded early – and no time was lost with the response.

Second, there was a real recognition that the response to a nutrition crisis needs to be multi-sectorial. It is not just about food. It is also about water and sanitation and health. And both humanitarian and development resources need to be deployed. On the EU side, we put in € 337 m as our response to the Sahel crisis last year. Roughly half from the humanitarian budget, and half from development funds.

Third, we need to target the most vulnerable. The 20% who make up 80% of the victims when things go wrong. In 2012, we funded the use of household economy analysis (HEA) across a number of Sahel countries. This enables accurate targeting of the most vulnerable, including for cash transfers – and we would like to see this rolled out even more widely.

Fourth, we need to work on the long-term resilience of the most vulnerable people of the Sahel. Even if overall we got the emergency response right last year, our long-term agenda needs to be focussed on strengthening the coping capacity of communities and countries.

Complacency would be completely misplaced. To begin with, many of the most vulnerable households of the Sahel came out of last year severely weakened. Child mortality figures remain shockingly high, year in, year out: with at least 200,000 children under five dying annually from malnutrition and related causes. This year could yet be difficult. In Mali, we will have to deal with the humanitarian consequences of last year's political crisis for some time to come – and of course these only add to the vulnerability of the region as a whole. And this structural vulnerability is what we need to work on.

That is why, as you know, we started the AGIR Sahel Alliance last year, together with many of you, at a meeting in Brussels in June. AGIR was formally launched with the countries and regional organizations of the Sahel in Ouagadougou last December. And it now has to move from declarations of intent to action on the ground. The first step is a mapping of 'who does what' on resilience across the Sahel – to which I encourage all of you to contribute.

AGIR will not seek to re-invent the wheel. A lot of good work is happening already. When I was in Burkina last December and again in January I was struck by the excellent results from a pilot initiative to cover the healthcare fees of the under-fives and pregnant and breastfeeding women. An initiative that has reduced under-five mortality by 13%. This is the kind of safety-net scheme that we want to see scaled up across the Sahel. If AGIR can help do that, it will have been worthwhile.

Once again, my thanks to Ertharin for having organized today's discussion. I hope that if we talk about the same subject one year from now, we will again be looking at "how we got it right". And that we will be starting to see the first tangible benefits from our collective work to build resilience in the Sahel.

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