Thursday, September 02, 2010

Still Thinking ‘Inside the Box’

Source: FEWS Net

With famine again threatening the Sahel region, the same time-worn and flawed responses to the looming crisis appear to be in the making. According to Nigerien government (IRIN news reporting), 50% of its population (7 million) at risk of famine in its central and eastern parts and Chad is reporting 20% (2 million) are at the same levels of vulnerability in the central and northern parts of its territory. Updates from FEWS (Famine Early Warning Systems) verifies these reports as a belt of high to extreme food insecurity stretches from eastern Mali to western Sudan (see the image above). The media interviews officials at national agencies in an effort to find solutions. These officials urge NGOs and wealthy nations to provide immediate food aid and long-term assistance to their agricultural, livestock and irrigation sectors. Once again by thinking ‘inside the box,’ expectations rest on the central government to be the gatekeeper and manager of external aid as was the case with the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s. This reliance on external donations and national governments to individually manage their own food crises accomplishes little to end food insecurity in the region, however.

Solutions are obviously not easy or immediate. But there are two realities that are under reported and need greater attention. One is the growing conditions of regional climate change and how this will affect the area. With greater extremities of weather, particularly drought and flooding, land use and migration patterns will need greater flexibility and promotion by West African states. Regional opportunities for temporary work and migration to bordering states are needed to allow vulnerable groups to stave off future crises. This is a tactic that local populations, particularly nomadic pastoralists, adjusted for in the past but the creation of arbitrary borders and confinement of populations through border closures and discrimination have retarded the fluidity that West Africans once engaged in to feed their families and maintain their livelihoods.

The other is allowing local populations to manage their natural resources. The policy of decentralization is promoted by many international actors including non-governmental organizations, bilateral and multilateral agencies. Decentralization is the process of the central state transferring various powers of development and natural resource management to local communities. Most West African states have balked on passing decision making powers and releasing the needed funds for development projects to the local level. There are obviously concerns over defining representatives and dividing powers fairly among two or more groups who share the same natural resource(s). These concerns are not justification for dismissing the goal of decentralization, however. Central governments in the Sahel have made few steps towards overcoming these obstacles and implementing decentralization in the region.

Where the national level can have a participatory role in ending food insecurity is in eradicating laws relating to food production that conflict and cancel out one another and eliminate the competition that exists between different bureaus. In addition, Sahelian governments must promote agendas that maintain natural resources and are complimentary to stable food production. To do so, the central government will have to play a pragmatic arbiter to the diverse populations it represents instead of heavy-handed patriarch. The stalemate of the national government overseeing and controlling natural resources while maintaining a top-down approach to development is not working to improve agriculture, steward pasture and manage water resources. Even if the food aid arrives delivery will be late as much as five months in the more remote Sahel. Crops have already failed, livestock is dying, seed banks are empty, and pasture is depleted. The region has prolonged its risk of food insecurity for too long by relying on the central government to solve this issue. There must be greater cooperation not only at the national level but also the regional and local. Giving West Africans a significant stake in the land they inhabit is the first step.

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