In Burkina Faso the first line of humanitarian action came from the local people. Arriving hungry and exhausted from Mali, families forced to flee the fighting in the north of the country found their neighbours giving them not just food and water but even their own homes to live in. Hospitality is a deeply entrenched value in “the Land of the Honest Men”.
I was deeply moved by the dignity and spirit of everyone I met during my second visit to the Sahel this year. Refugees arrive here with next to nothing and yet they were still determined to present me with a gift – a shawl I will hold on to for as long as live.
The last time I was in the Sahel – in Niger and Chad – was the beginning of the year when some 18 million people in the region were in a food crisis. We were facing a catastrophe on the scale of that in the Horn of Africa last year, when famine was declared in parts of Somalia. The BBC’s veteran Africa correspondent Mike Wooldridge, interviewing me in a remote clinic, challenged me: “What guarantee can you give me that I won’t be back here in six months reporting on another hunger crisis?”
Thankfully he didn’t have to return: we acted early and rallied international support and attention. The European Commission mobilised 337 million euros – a third of the total emergency aid. More than ten million people received aid. More than 800,000 children under five years of age received treatment for severe acute malnutrition. Half of them would have died without it.
Motivating donors before the TV news starts broadcasting disturbing images of starving children is never easy. But it can happen. The Sahel crisis was “the dog that didn’t bark” and we can all be proud that the satellite news channels didn’t arrive en masse in the Sahel.
So now I am back and there is good news: rains were abundant this year and harvests are good. But here comes the bad news. Food prices remain high and the conflict in Mali is having a negative impact on trade and investments in the region. With many communities severely weakened by three crises in six years, there are reasons to fear that for the most vulnerable people 2013 may be as bad as the year we will soon leave behind. With austerity biting the global economy, getting hard-pressed governments to donate will be that much more difficult. And this is very worrisome for the ultra-poor of the Sahel – twelve million spread across the five Sahel countries – who represent 20 per cent of the population and live on less than half a dollar a day.
At these levels of poverty they are permanently perched on the brink of a survival deficit. It only takes a natural or man-made shock – with water scarcity their greatest enemy – to push them over the edge. The Sahel has the world’s highest infant mortality rate: a fifth die before reaching their fifth birthdays. Chronic malnutrition touches nearly half of all children here.
Which is why I am so pleased that regional governments and their interlocutors have just formally adopted the AGIR Sahel plan. I was delighted to be present at the meeting in Ouagadougou when it happened. The political declaration on the Alliance Global pour l’Initiative de Resilience – AGIR – takes zero hunger as its core objective. This won’t happen overnight, in fact a realistic target has been set of 20 years.
This can and will be achieved, I believe, because the world is waking up to the vital role of building resilience, to grow the coping capacity of the most vulnerable to future shocks.
I cherish the time I spent with those Malian refugees and their good neighbours in the host country Burkina Faso. Meeting people with such big hearts is all the motivation you need to keep going to end their cycle of despair. And we are finally going in the right direction.