07/17/2012 04:13 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT

West Africa's Past Crises Add To Latest Hunger Emergency


The hunger crisis in West Africa owes more to a lack of reserves rather than sudden spikes in food prices or weather that kills crops and livestock, says a new report commissioned by two international development agencies.

Families who have endured previous crises have no resilience or ability to recover from drastic changes, according to the report, Ending the Everyday Emergency, which was commissioned by Save the Children Canada and World Vision.

"People's access to food at prices they can afford, and their capacity to absorb or adapt to new shocks have been severely undermined by the Sahel crises in 2005, 2008 and 2010. The vast majority of the most vulnerable households in the region have had neither the time, nor the necessary support, to get out of debt, or restore their normal means of making a living," Peter Gubbels, West Africa co-ordinator for agricultural organization Groundswell International, said in the report.

While the report admits the word "resilience" has become a buzzword in the aid community, the idea is an important one.

"It's to bounce back to where they were, both in terms of finances and [in terms of] health and education," said Sheri Arnott, World Vision's senior policy adviser on food security and nutrition.

People who go through multiple crises lose that ability to bounce back, whether it's because they sold or lost their livestock, left school or were malnourished because of a famine. Children under two years old whose growth is stunted, for example, may never make up for that lost growth.

18 million West Africans face hunger crisis

More than 18 million people are currently struggling through a crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa, the report notes, with more than one million children facing "severe and life-threatening malnutrition."

The region includes Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. Canada lists Senegal and Mali as countries of focus, which get the bulk of the Canadian International Development Agency's aid for the region.

One solution, Arnott said, is to do what the Canadian government did earlier this year and provide money before a crisis hits so aid agencies can position themselves to help. Canada provided $41 million in funding for West Africa last February instead of waiting for the problem to become more acute. That can help, for example, buy food for cattle or add water points where the cattle can drink.

"It helps cattle and people dependent on their cattle to weather the worst parts of the drought, and then they can recover much faster because they actually have an asset base after," she said.

The report argues there's a constant emergency when it comes to hunger and nutrition, but, Arnott says, people outside the region don't pay attention until it's more acute.

"Both the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are not just food crises that happen every couple of years. There is a chronic, ongoing crisis of food and child malnutrition," she said.

Also on HuffPost