UNICEF has estimated that 300,000 children under the age of five die each year of malnutrition and related causes in the Sahel. This year hunger has hit the region hard, and this number could increase even more, unless we decisively step in with help now.
About two months ago I travelled to Niger because I was becoming increasingly worried about the growing risk of hunger in the region. Erratic rains, severe drought, higher food prices and less money being sent home to families from relatives living abroad due to the global financial crisis, all of these factors put together were pushing millions of people over the edge in terms of food insecurity. The picture I saw was alarming. During the week preceding my visit the number of malnourished kids seeking medical assistance had begun to rise rapidly, and the number of people needing assistance had reached 10 million.
I also witnessed that both Niger (as well as the rest of the Sahel) and the international community have learnt the bitter lessons of the 2005 famine and were better prepared now: with prepositioned supplies of food, better targeting of those at highest risk (especially kids under 2 years of age), and an elevated alert level.
Since my trip the crisis has worsened. Reports from our experts and local partners show that needs are even greater than we had feared. Help is not coming in fast enough and there is not enough of it. In Niger alone, 7 million people, almost half of the country’s population, are facing hunger. There are millions more in need for help in northern Mali, in western Chad, in northern Nigeria, in north-east Burkina Faso and in Southern Sudan.
Since the end of 2009 we have already provided €98 million for the Sahel region, which includes funds for drought prevention. But it is very clear that more is urgently needed. I have just initiated an additional allocation of €30 million for the Sahel. We will strive to reach out to people in remote areas in the countryside, far from roads, schools, and basis services, where help is desperately needed and yet difficult to receive. We will expand the voucher projects that have proven very successful. Through them we put small amounts of cash in the hands of women, who then have the means to feed their families, and who have shown tremendous determination to use their resources wisely.
When I close my eyes and think back to my visit in Niger, I see women in a village we support, proudly holding their vouchers in their hands. I also see their kids sleeping in the afternoon heat, because they have eaten and a nap comes easy with a full stomach. I hope we will be able to rapidly bring this vital help to many more families in the Sahel over this summer. For us this is a matter of money, for them, of life or death.