In the spring of 2011, reports of an impending famine in the African Sahel region began to appear in the media. About 18 million people were estimated to be at risk of starvation, mainly because of poor harvests in several countries. The warning of the impending crisis was triggered by a large production shortfall in 2011—a 26 percent decline in the Sahelian countries—compared with 2010. That statistic alone, however, is somewhat misleading.
The year 2010 was a record production year, and, when compared with the average of the preceding five years, production in 2011 does not appear to be dramatically below recent trends, except in a few countries (see figure below). Taken together, the eight Sahelian countries had an aggregate shortfall of just 3 percent compared with the preceding five-year average. In contrast, the eight neighboring coastal countries together produced 9 percent more than the preceding five-year average. Taken together, the entire region of West Africa plus Chad produced 5 percent more than that average.
Moreover, domestic production is only one source of supplies to meet local demand for food. The other sources are commercial imports and food aid. When commercial imports are accounted for, supply levels for each country, as well as for the West African region as a whole, far exceed local demand. For the Sahelian countries, commercial imports bring the net excess supply to nearly 600,000 metric tons—not including food aid. The net surplus for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), without Nigeria and Guinea, exceeds 2 million metric tons.
Niger has the second-highest GHI score in West Africa and is by far the most vulnerable country in the region. Yet even here, the production shortfall in 2011 was not exceptionally large by historical standards, nor were harvest levels in preceding years exceptionally poor. In fact, production has increased steadily over the past few years, although the trends are highly variable. Here, too, domestic production and commercial imports have matched or exceeded aggregate demand every year, without even taking into consideration food aid and informal cross-border trade (Eilerts 2012).
The history of food prices in West Africa shows that the food balance situation in this region is actually more stable than in other regions of Africa. Prices have risen less than elsewhere on the continent.
So why the crisis? The real issue may not be sudden famine, but rather persistent, chronic vulnerability among certain segments of the population that is not being addressed in a systemic way. Operating in crisis mode, as is currently being done, leads to costly, blanket-style, short-term interventions, while the root of the problem remains. This “crisis approach” may be effective in raising funds, but it can disrupt the very policies that are needed to build resilience among the most vulnerable groups. Such policies require national governments to exercise leadership and to embrace (1) systemic and sustained efforts to raise productivity among the most vulnerable, (2) targeted safety-net programs and wider interventions that are consistent with and supportive of the goal of building long-term community resilience, and (3) concerted efforts to remove barriers to cross-border trade.
The region’s strong agricultural and broader economic growth suggests that the chances for the first two measures to succeed are better now than at any time in the recent past. Moreover, the best argument for further opening up cross-border trade is the fact that the region as a whole is in a surplus situation while isolated areas of individual countries are suffering from the effects of localized production shortfalls. Alongside these efforts, a more unified and coherent approach to resilience, and more specifically to community resilience, is required of all stakeholders at national, international, and multilateral levels.