18 June 2012

Making the Sahel Push - Will it Work?

Campaigning for the ongoing hunger crisis in the Sahel is really starting to pick up steam. UNICEF was a bit like the fallen tree that nobody heard for a while, but more organizations and now governments are kicking up public calls to address the crisis. A lot of work has already been done and some money has been raised through weak appeals, but public attention has yet to reach even the point of the height of the Horn of Africa famine last year.

There may be a few reasons for the low public response. The Sahel is a wide region that covers a group of countries. Telling a single story is much harder when aid is needed in numerous places. In the Horn of Africa, the main crisis point was in Somalia. Plus there is the fact that the designation of famine precipitated news coverage and created space for campaigns like USAID's FWD.

To further complicate things is Mali. Rebel groups are vying for a free state in the north. After seemingly agreeing to work together, it appears that the two groups may not work so harmoniously together. Then toss in a bizarre coup which has added tension to working with the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). All is then compounded by a hunger crisis which means that people are leaving the county for Mauritania and other neighbors who also happen to have a drought that is affecting their populations. And, it is all far more complex than that.

This week, the Huffington Post is drawing attention to the Sahel with more coverage. They sent an email to bloggers last week encouraging people to write about it and to put them in touch with people who are in the Sahel and want to report or tell stories about what is happening. So expect to see more reporting on the crisis from media outlets.

This will be an interesting test for how much Huffington Post can really move the needle on an issue. There is the well documented CNN effect. Is there a Huffington Post effect?

On the higher level, leaders are meeting in Brussels today to discuss how to respond to the Sahel. Devex lists who will be in attendance:
The high-level gathering will be led by European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs and aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva. Participants — which include U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, U.S. Agency for International Development Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake — are set to forge a new partnership focused on ending the current crisis in Sahel and prevent similar situations in the future.

Also expected at the meeting are representatives from Sahel countries, namely Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania and Mali.
Many of the same leaders happened to have been in Washington DC to participate in last week's Frontiers in Development conference and the ensuing Child Survival Call to Action. There were likely some smaller discussions about the Sahel in between star-studded panels and presentations, but it feels a bit like a missed opportunity that the region did not make a bigger splash during the week. 

Nevertheless, the EU is picking up the slack with the meetings. As Oxfam says well in a tweet today, the Sahel crisis has been very hard to fund. Getting stakeholders in the same room could help to revitalize the effort to bring in the needed money.

July and August will bring the drier months which, much like the HoA famine and food crisis, will coincide with the height of the Sahel crisis. Duncan Green points out three potentially complicating factors to the response:
  1. A possible African Union or ECOWAS military intervention in Northern Mali to deal with armed groups there (shades of Somalia, in terms of security/anti-terrorism playing havoc with the humanitarian response)
  2. Predictions of lower than average rainfall (due from now to end August) in Western Sahel, which could tip Western Mali and Senegal into protracted crisis instead of recovery
  3. A locust epidemic, mainly in Niger and Mali, could be devastating, but is hard to deal with because of restricted access to Mali and Libya.
Green is tentative with his optimism about the Sahel. There is no doubt that lessons were learned from the HoA. The Famine Early Warning System worked again to provide some advance notice and mobilize international and domestic responses. Rather than stalling, as was done in the HoA, action was relatively swift - though like anything it left a bit to be desired.

Funding right now is woefully short according to OCHA numbers. Just about every agency and NGO is short of what they are projecting to provide an adequate response to the crisis. Can people and governments be mobilized to provide financial support? The Euro Zone has its own financial crisis to deal with and the US is about to hit the peak of the presidential campaign season. Can President Obama afford time to publicly discuss the Sahel when he is trying to win an election that is essentially a referendum on his economic policies? At what point are people turned off by the cycle of humanitarian crises?