Christians respond to food crisis in Sahel

Last year, the famine in the Horn of Africa garnered headlines around the globe, but a similar humanitarian disaster unfolding in the West African countries of the Sahel region has yet to capture the world's attention.

Drought has returned to many parts of West Africa, creating food insecurity for millions of people and raising the spectre of a major humanitarian disaster.

The Sahel is an expansion semi-arid region, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It includes Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Chad, northern Cameroon, southern Mauritania, southern Algeria, northern Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and northern Cameroon.

Even during good years, when there is sufficient rain, there usually isn't enough food to meet the needs of the people of the Sahel, Eric Fran tells ChristianWeek. "And this is not a good year," says the director of philanthropy for World Relief Canada, a Christian non-governmental organization. World Relief's mandate, according to its website, is "to respond to the relief and development needs of the world's poor in the name of Jesus Christ, through our global network of Christian organizations, in partnership with Canadian and overseas Churches."

Low agricultural yields

Due to insufficient rainfall, the most recent growing season yielded low cereal production in many regions of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Chad," says Guy Des Aulniers, emergency relief program officer with Development and Peace, the Canadian branch of the world wide Catholic charity known as Caritas Internationalis.

Tragically, the people of the Sahel are all too familiar with hunger and malnutrition. "The 2005 food crisis lingers in the memory of people in the region," Des Aulniers writes in an email.

Among the drought stricken countries of West African Sahel, says World Relief's Eric Frans, "Niger is the worst affected country." Just two years ago, Niger suffered a major food crisis, staggering the country.

According to World Vision Canada, approximately 13 million people in the Sahel are at risk of malnutrition.

The region is "sliding" into a crisis, says Dave Toycen, president and CEO of World Vision Canada. Toycen spoke to ChristianWeekwithin hours of returning from Mali, where he assessed the immediate food crisis and the effect that it is having on World Vision's long-term community development programs there.

He says that approximately three million people in Mali (or one-fifth of the population) are being affected by drought. He points out that 12 per cent of the population is suffering from malnutrition, and there are "initial signs of higher levels of malnutrition among children."

Mali is an agrarian society in which many farmers live on less than one dollar a day, Toycen says. But these are especially hard times for the country. Food prices have soared 100% from a year ago, he says.

Last autumn's paltry harvest won't be enough to sustain Mali's population in the coming months.

"I checked a number of the grain storage [structures]," Toycen recalls, "and in some cases there was literally nothing in them."

During the last week of February, representatives from the region's branches of Caritas gathered in Bamako, the capital of Mali, to discuss the crisis. One of the issues on the agenda, says Des Aulniers, was the growing numbers of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) generated by the drought, rapidly rising food prices, and civil conflict. For example, there are 100,000 refugees and IDPs in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, widening the scope of the crisis.

Christian Response

"The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee's immediate focus will be on Niger, which is one of the most severely [affected] countries in the region," says Kristen VanderBerg, spokesperson for CRWRC-Canada. "In Niger, insufficient rains nationwide led to a 31% decline in crop production compared to last year," she writes in an email. She warns that "cereal production for Niger's 15 million people is likely to be the lowest in 20 years."

According to VanderBerg, CRWRC has been on the ground in Niger "for nearly two decades, partnering with local churches and community organizations to carry out long-term community programs as well as responses to disaster situations." The Christian NGO and its local partners are "currently planning a food assistance response, including the subsidized sale of grain, various food-for-work activities, distribution of seeds, and possibly digging wells," she says.

Development and Peace has responded to an emergency appeal for humanitarian assistance from Caritas Mali by making a $50,000 donation to relief efforts, says Des Aulniers. "We are also currently negotiating with Canadians Foodgrains Bank to support the food distribution of this appeal—but nothing is concluded yet," he adds.

According to Des Aulniers, Caritas is expecting to receive emergency appeals for Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, and Chad in the very near future.

Although World Relief Canada doesn't work directly in Niger, Eric Frans says that it supports seven going food projects in the country through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

World Vision has hit the ground running in the Sahel. "What we're trying to do is stabilize the current situation, and then continue to invest in the longer term things that really are the solutions that address the root causes of people having so little resistance [to malnutrition] to begin with," Toycen says of World Vision's strategy.

For example, World Vision is delivering a feeding program for children. It is also providing seeds to farmers and training families how to grow simple vegetable gardens. Other ongoing programs involve training villagers how to efficiently use water, building small water reservoirs, and improving existing wells.

How can Canadian Christians help?

"They can pray," says Toycen. "This is a massive challenge we're facing, and I believe God answers prayer." Toycen also asks Christians to consider supporting World Vision's humanitarian efforts in the Sahel.

"I think this particular drought and food crisis situation is an example for us as the Christian community to be part of good works for people who are at the edge of survival," Toycen says. And he reminds Christians that good works save lives. "I think it gives God a good reputation, and it gives our faith a good reputation that people care and have compassion."

As the crisis unfolds, Toycen asks Canadian Christians to consider (NRSV) Matthew 5:16, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.