By Daniel Flynn
DAKAR, June 11 Short-sighted and inadequate foreign aid has worsened the plight of millions of people in Africa's parched and poverty-stricken Sahel belt, according to a report commissioned by major charities in the region.
The study entitled "Beyond Any Drought", backed by charities including Oxfam and Save the Children, argues that unless aid programmes are overhauled Africa's poorest nations face harsher famines as free-market reforms deepen the roots of poverty.
Two years after a crisis in Niger left 3.6 million people short of food and grabbed world headlines with images of starving children, aid agencies failed to improve coordination with one another and with local governments.
"History will repeat itself unless governments in the Sahel and donor agencies adopt an entirely new strategy for the region," says Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) think-tank which co-issued the report.
Foreign organisations frequently fail to consult local residents', are inflexible with preconceived aid solutions and focus more on meeting their donors' targets than improving the lives of the poor, the report argued.
Projects usually have budgets for just one or two years, and have to produce measurable results within that period, it said.
With rates of malnutrition permanently at emergency levels in many parts of the Sahel, development agencies complain their efforts to work with government institutions is undermined by humanitarian relief organisations, which bypass local authorities to deliver food aid directly to those in need.
The Niger crisis brought these tensions to boiling point.
"The strength of antagonism between long-term development workers and humanitarian workers in the aftermath of the Niger crisis is shocking," said the study.
MORE RESOURCES NEEDED
The report called on donors to commit substantially more resources to the region, to lobby for longer-term budgets and bridge the gap between emergency and development responses.
Highlighting the inequalities of aid distribution, the report said that Niger comes only 71st on the list of recipients of aid per capita even though it is ranked by the United Nations as the world's poorest country.
By contrast, wealthier Tanzania receives more aid than Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali combined, the report said.
It added that too much aid comes as food donations, which do nothing to bolster resistance to future shocks in the region. American government agency USAID spends $1.2 billion a year to ship food surpluses to Africa, notably the Sahel, distorting local prices while supporting U.S. shippers and packers.
While demanding the dismantling of government support for agricultural exports, NGOs and the World Bank had failed to lobby for an end to U.S. cotton subsidies which worsen poverty amongst West African farmers, the report said.
Donors' assumptions that liberalising markets would free people from poverty had also overlooked seasonal price hikes at the end of the dry season which force many farmers into debt and force them to sell livestock, sowing the seeds of famine.
"People blame locusts, drought and high food prices for the crisis that affected more than 3 million people in Niger," said Vanessa Rubin of CARE International UK. "But these were just triggers. The real cause of the problem was that people there are chronically vulnerable. Two years later, they still are."