Battling the Drought: An Interview with Philippe Conraud

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Poor rains at the end of 2009 resulted in drought in many parts of West Africa last year, leaving nearly 10 million people across the region hungry or undernourished. We speak with Philippe Conraud, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Oxfam-Great Britain, about the work Oxfam GB has been doing to help people in the region recover from the food crisis and the challenges of that work.

Drought in West Africa has left several million people there hungry or at risk of food insecurity. What is Oxfam doing to immediately address their needs?

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Drought in West Africa has left nearly 10 million people in the region hungry or undernourished. (Photo credit: Mike Goldwater)

We’ve been working in three countries in response to the food crisis: Chad, Niger, and Mali. Now we’re almost at the end of our emergency response. In terms of our activities, we’ve been distributing food, cash transfers, supplying feed for livestock, and providing people with money by repurchasing livestock.

What is Oxfam doing to help farmers prepare for future disasters and create food security over the long term?

We are really focusing on the pastoral population, people who are cattle breeders in the Sahel. We are less involved with the farming population, but we are doing some work in these countries with farmers, especially in Mali in the Gao region.

Our work has two sides: First would be the recovery work after the food crisis to help farmers recover and get back to where they were before the food crisis and before the drought. This work will help them be able to recover their livelihoods and be ready for the next season; the other side is to work on a longer term approach. And we’re not using new technologies but trying to work on preparedness to make sure the population is able to cope with any kind of similar situation in the future. But that’s difficult. Food insecurity has been an issue in these countries for so long, so we’ve been working with many actors, including the government, NGO’s, and local partners to altogether think about how to address this chronic food insecurity and be better prepared for disasters.

Although West Africa is naturally a dry place prone to drought, many believe food crises like this one and that of 2005 are not inevitable and that they are in part the result of bad governance and other external factors. Did poor governance help contribute to the current food crisis? And if so, how?

I would say yes, there are some external factors that contributed to the food crisis, but in the end the reality of the drought was there. The food crisis hit in very poor countries—Niger is one of the last countries, according to the U.N. Development Index.  We’re talking about a very large population in a very, very poor country, so given any kind of natural disaster, like a drought, it would be very difficult to avoid problems anyway, even with good governance.

But still, I fully agree that good government is key to responding to such a crisis. Good use of government incomes is key to addressing such a crisis. For example, look at what happened this year after the coup in Niger in February. Following the coup, things changed drastically in terms of the openness of the new government to the international community.  We were worried that the new government might not recognize the importance of the food crisis, but the new government has been able to mobilize the international community to implement real relief and I think with their good response we have avoided the worst and done well.

This  kind of long-term approach through good governance is key if you want to avoid crises in the future, but even then I’m not sure good governance would be sufficient to avoid that. Climate change is already there. Maybe the way things are working politically there could be questioned. Niger also has one of the highest numbers of children per family in the world. All those things have to be looked at if you really want to have a longer-term impact.

What did Oxfam learn during its response to the 2005 food crisis in West Africa and how are they applying that knowledge now?

On the technical side of the response, we’ve been focusing much more on cash transfers instead of on food distribution, because we are convinced that’s the best way to address the situation in context. Then on the internal operations side I think we responded earlier than we did in 2005. We began responses in February, four months earlier than we did in 2005, which is a huge improvement, because you know timing is a key issue. We were more aware following the poor rains at the end of the previous year, so we were ready to respond earlier and be more reactive and launch our teams.

Dan Kane is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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