Africa: New Words, Old Challenges

Spending aid money on social initiatives like communal bore-wells, which affect and protect everyone's lives, especially the poorest, will make people more resilient to climatic and economic shocks, says a new report. This is probably a truth as old as development science itself, but a fresh coat of paint and the use of new terms like "resilience" might revive interest in these vital issues.

The report, Ending the Everyday Emergency, commissioned by NGOs Save the Children and World Vision and compiled by Peter Gubbels, tries to assess the progress, lessons learned, and challenges of promoting "resilience" in the Sahel. Such initiatives are needed all over, but are few and far between.

Money spent on a bore-well, vegetable seeds, basic gardening skills and access to a communal patch of land near the water point in Diaout, a village in the Gorgol region of Mauritania, where most families cannot afford to eat more than once a day, has helped them withstand the drought that has killed animals and destroyed crops in their neighbourhood.

The villagers want access to more land, and a water pump to draw water from the Senegal River, a few kilometres from Diaout, because they realize they can grow more food and sell what they don't need. This initiative was set up by Oxfam, which is trying to extend the project to more villages but are stretched for cash.

The Gorgol, Brakna and Assaba regions form Mauritania's Triangle of Poverty, where at least 60 percent of the people live on less than one US dollar a day. Gubbels said the chronically food insecure population usually does not benefit from development, "and only gets enough support from humanitarian action to avoid famine – they do not get long-term support to get out of the debt-hunger trap."

The lack of protection for such families has been dubbed the "resilience deficit", and has driven millions unable to cope with shocks into chronic hunger – at least 18 million have been affected by the food crisis brought by drought in the Sahel.

"The current paradigm of development… [is based on the assumption that] increasing the overall supply of food will create jobs for 'unproductive' peasant farmers and also reduce food prices," Gubbels said.

"I am not against investing in overall agriculture, and economic growth spurred by agriculture. But in the context of the Sahel, I argue that economic growth is leaving rising numbers of highly food insecure families and malnourished children – economic growth in the Sahel was over five percent in 2011, but we see increased vulnerability and malnutrition."

Even in a "non-crisis" year, an estimated 645,000 children in the Sahel die of largely preventable and treatable causes, and 226,000 of these deaths can be directly linked to malnutrition, the report said. "Acute malnutrition affects 10 percent to 14 percent of children in Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, and more than 15 percent of children in Chad."

He suggested increased investment in social transfers – like communal bore-wells, seeds, and more inclusive extension services that filter down to the most vulnerable.

New words, old challenges

There is not much to disagree with what Gubbels and the report are saying, said Simon Levine, an aid expert at the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think-tank. And the critique that interventions related to improving food security and livelihood needs are a development failure is "nothing new" – just that it is being called a "resilience deficit – but absolutely no less important for restating", he noted.

"If the new language helps to get attention with a wider development audience, then I have no problems at all. They [the report and its author] are 100 percent right that the challenges in the Sahel are not really about how to respond to crises, but how to prevent them."

The report also suggests harnessing "small-scale agriculture for resilience", which… "will need careful operationalization if it is not to sit uncomfortably with the critique that too much attention has been paid to food production at the expense of other factors creating vulnerability".

Levine said all aid agencies need to change their development planning [to] a strategic approach "that is not a jargon change – that's a very significant change indeed. Each actor has to think not only about their own work, but about how all the other actors fit together, so that impact on the ground becomes the centre of analysis, and not each person's pet project."



Africa’s challenges remain the same, even though the terms have changed.

All aid agencies operating in Africa need to change their development planning to a strategic approach.