Helen Clark: Debriefing on the Joint UNDP/OCHA Mission to Niger

Feb 29, 2012

Remarks by Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator,
on the occasion of the Debriefing on the
Joint UNDP/OCHA Mission to Niger
Wednesday 29 February, 9:30am.

Due to drought, food shortages, and other factors it is anticipated that at least 10 million people in the Sahel are struggling to get sufficient food this year. Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, parts of Senegal, Northern Cameroon, and Northern Nigeria are likely to be affected.   

The emergency situation now unfolding, and expected to peak between March and August, is the latest in a series of recurring and deadly food shortages in the Sahel. It comes just two years after the region’s last severe food security and nutrition crisis in 2010.

Two weeks ago two very important initiatives to highlight the situation in the Sahel were taken.

The Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Josette Sheeran, brought together the heads of IFAD, OCHA, FAO, and UNDP with high level officials from USAID, the European Union, ECOWAS, and the African Union to call jointly for stepped up and urgent action to address the humanitarian and development emergency in the Sahel.

Valerie Amos, the UN’s Emergency and Humanitarian Co-ordinator and I departed directly from the high level Rome meeting on a joint OCHA-UNDP mission to Niger.

Heeding the Government of Niger’s early warning, our objective was to draw attention to the urgent need for concerted and rapid action to meet the immediate emergency needs of the people of Niger, while also addressing the underlying structural causes of food insecurity by building the resilience which can break the cycle of chronic in the region.

This means that the humanitarian, early recovery, and development actions need to be designed to reinforce each other – in other words, that together we respond in a way which goes beyond relief and builds long term resilience to drought.

Our mission began on 16 February with briefings by Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, and key ministers and officials on the food security and nutrition crisis.  

The Government has been quick to appreciate and react to the implications of last year’s rain shortfall and poor harvest. Alerted through its early warning system, the Government expressed concern as early as August last year, developed an emergency response plan, and directed some of its own resources to avert a worsening situation. 

Nevertheless, the extent of the drought, the extreme vulnerability of a population which had not yet been able to recover from the 2010 food security and nutrition crisis, and the compounding impact of the conflicts in neighbouring countries have all contributed to a deteriorating situation.

We were briefed that multiple assessments have estimated that 5.4 million people are affected by food insecurity in Niger - or about one third of the population of Niger.

We met with a range of national and international partners, including farmers’ associations, donors, NGOs, and the UN Country Team. All had a common message: They commended the Government for its leadership and determination to tackle the short and long term problems; reinforced the urgency of scaling up co-ordinated and existing efforts, and urged that there be an integrated humanitarian and development response which meets immediate needs while laying the ground for greater resilience and sustainable solutions for the future.

Poverty, gender disparities, environmental degradation, and low institutional capacity were highlighted as being among the underlying causes of vulnerability, malnutrition, and food insecurity.  

The Government’s support plan is receiving support from partners – but not yet enough. 

The Government is addressing the medium- and long-term development needs by operationalising its “3Ns” vision : ‘Nigerians Feeding Nigerians’.  The MDG Acceleration Action Plan developed in full consultation with the Government and a very wide range of stakeholders last year is a ready-made vehicle for that. 

President Mahamadou Issoufou highlighted the importance of operationalizing such existing strategies – including by mobilising and attracting new resources to scale up what is already working to address food security and reduce vulnerability.

In March last year, with $30 million of its own funding and the support of more than twenty partners, the Government began to implement the actions prioritised in the MDG Acceleration Action Plan.

We were able to see examples of practical and effective responses which build resilience and food security on our field visit.

We visited agricultural and nutrition initiatives in the Tillabéry region in South West Niger, supported by the UN and local and international partners. 

It was harrowing to visit a clinic where malnourished children and mothers were receiving nutrition support.  Speaking with the women, it was apparent that many were walking considerable distances in a weakened state with their children to get support, and that many husbands had already had to leave home to endeavour to find work elsewhere.

Yet, not so far away, we visited a village agricultural plot which had benefited greatly from the building of a water  reservoir, a well, & an irrigation system.  The women farmers were proud to show us the produce from their extensive vegetable gardens, which will play a big role in staving off hunger and in boosting nutrition for that community.  

Scaling up successful initiatives like there will most definitely not only help address the current food crisis, but will also build long term resilience.  It was clear that small investments can have a large and beneficial impact on communities. But even such small investments on the scale required will demand additional resources. In the short term, people enabled to participate in cash for work and food for work programmes can be engaged in putting such longer term infrastructure in place, and gaining new skills in horticulture and in equipment maintenance.

In moving forward to address the worsening situation in the Sahel, humanitarian interventions remain critical, but they must be part of an integrated and comprehensive strategy to build the longer-term resilience of communities. 

Using existing national plans and frameworks, support must be focused on what is needed to build on the strength of local communities, to enable them to learn from each other, meet immediate needs, address vulnerabilities, and put in place the infrastructure needed for future resilience.  The people we met in Tillabery and whom I met in Agadez are very resilient, but circumstances have combined to strain their resilience beyond endurance. 

Support is needed to help strengthen the capacity of governing institutions to plan and manage programmes, and reliably deliver essential services – including agricultural extension services - and other initiatives identified in the MDG Acceleration Plan for building food security and better nutrition. 

Investment in climate-resilient agriculture and associated infrastructure, including water reservoirs, is needed urgently, and open markets for food trade need to be facilitated to encourage a supply response to demand.

To repeat: in South West Niger we met people growing food where there is water infrastructure – yet, only kilometres away a health clinic was overwhelmed by the needs of malnourished children and mothers whose food supply was exhausted.

The UN is committed to doing its part to integrate its own response to the Sahel crisis, and to help operationalize existing strategies, including by stepped up efforts to: 

(i) mobilise additional dedicated internal and external support and resources; and
(ii) strengthen local capacities to help tackle the current and long term challenges

Today’s briefing represents a positive step in this direction.  By maintaining attention on the unfolding situation and seeking to mobilize additional support, we can prevent a full-blown crisis.

To do this we must work together.

The UN, working closely with the Governments of the Sahel, will also increase efforts to co-ordinate actors on the ground – helping to direct support where it can be most effective.  One way this can be done, as demonstrated in Niger, is though the rapid completion and implementation of the MAF action plans for food security – now also underway in Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mali.

In Niger the Government, supported by the UN, used the MDG Acceleration Framework to bring a diverse range of partners together behind concrete actions designed to have rapid impact, by addressing the underlying bottlenecks which have prevented the successful implementation of past plans and which contribute to recurring crises.

We heard consistent support for the MDG Acceleration approach from farmers’ associations, international NGOs, the Government, and donors. 

MDG Acceleration-prioritized actions, now underway, include helping rural people cope with shocks through cash or food for work schemes, which employ people to improve water systems, better manage land and environmental resources to build future resilience.

Micro/small and medium-sized enterprises in the agriculture and non-agriculture sectors are also being supported with microfinance and by making connections with commodity value chains.

The Government committed to spend $6 million a year from 2011 to 2015 to implement the MDG Acceleration Action Plan, and has already exceeded its commitment for 2011. It has, for example, supported its agricultural bank to put in place a rotating credit arrangement and guarantee system for small scale producers and it has subsidized the distribution of over 2,000 tons of seeds to small scale producers.

A process of issuing land titles has also begun – with secure title people have greater incentives to invest in their land.

Full implementation of the MDG Acceleration initiatives in the four Sahel countries is now an imperative, as is enhanced co-ordination on food security at the regional level, in partnership with ECOWAS. and with other regional bodies which already have initiatives in place to address the problem of food and nutrition insecurity in the Sahel. 

Together with our colleagues from OCHA and with the support of our UN Resident & Humanitarian Co-ordinators and teams in the Sahel countries, Valerie Amos and I are committed to staying fully engaged to ensure a proactive and urgent response to addressing the immediate crisis while tackling the underlying causes of the crisis.

Together we can learn the lesson of the lingering and devastating food security crisis in the Horn of Africa – where there was early warning but little action. We know from the varying impact of drought in the Horn that we can’t prevent drought, but we can prevent famine.

To do better in the Sahel, we must act now and act together.   To date around ten per cent of the more than $400 million required for the response in Niger have been raised.  This has been sufficient to date, but it is only the end of February, and the harvest is not due until October – eight months away.  To avoid very serious impacts on human development, more funding needs to flow steadily in response to OCHA’s appeal now.

I also had the opportunity to visit Agadez in northern Niger, where I was also impressed by the leadership of the Governor, Mayors, and authorities. My focus there was on UNDP’s work with partners on community-level peacebuilding, de-mining, reintegration of former combatants, and work opportunities. The latter has included the creation of a large number of producer co-operatives.

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