Learning the Lessons in the Sahel

Assessing the response to the 2012 food crisis in the Sahel to build resilience for the future

In 2012, the Sahel region of West and Central Africa was once again hit by a severe food crisis, affecting over 18 million people at its peak. At the start of 2012, when the crisis began to unfold, many governments, donors and aid agencies were determined not to make the same mistakes again. This report considers how well they collectively performed, and the lessons that must be learned to improve future responses.

The analysis reveals that, although the 2012 response was bigger and, in many respects, better than responses to previous crises, there were still significant shortcomings that need to be addressed. Technical, financial and political barriers prevented governments from effectively leading the response. Diverging messages on the likely severity of the crisis led to paralysis and unnecessary delays in mobilizing a response. Donor funding was no more timely than before. As a result, millions of people still did not get the help they needed.

Change can and must be achieved. 2013 provides a critical opportunity for a breakthrough. The first priority is to recognise that the crisis is not over: as of April 5, the UN appeal for 2013 was just 24 per cent funded. The international community will continue to fail people unless it takes urgent action to deliver aid that is swift, sufficient and sustained. Secondly, all of those involved commit to getting better at preventing and managing future crises. The concept of resilience offers potential to do this, but only if it looks beyond the immediate causes of recurrent crises.

Key recommendations

The report underlines the importance of tackling three key structural challenges that weakened the 2012 response, just as they did previous responses:

  • Develop a shared understanding of vulnerability to food insecurity so that support is targeted to the poorest and responses can be launched rapidly;
  • Break down barriers between humanitarian and development actors so that long-term and emergency programs effectively support each other; 
  • Invest in strengthening the capacity of national and local actors so that governments can deliver large-scale, sustained support to their citizens.

These steps can help build resilience in the region, if combined with greater investment in existing policies that have proven successful – more support to small-scale agriculture, local and national food reserves, social protection programs and scaling up efforts to prevent and treat under nutrition.

Ultimately, governments, donors and aid agencies must also tackle the inequalities that lie at the heart of crises present and past, which make some people much more vulnerable than others.

Oxfam thanks Action Contre la Faim and Save the Children for their contribution to the report.