Interview with David Gressly, UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel

David Gressly, UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, says governments and donors responded early enough to the food and nutrition crisis in the region that it will be contained for 2012. “I think we’ve now gotten through most of the lean season, which is the period of the greatest risk, without major problems,” he says.

Mr. Gressly sees an opportunity next year to build resilience. “We need to prepare for 2013 to do two major things: one, rebuild households that have suffered from the three droughts since 2005; and secondly, start to work on the chronic nature of the crisis, dealing with the remaining issue of malnutrition. Even in a good year, a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition in the Sahel. A quarter of a million children will die next year, even with the good rains that we see.” He talks about the positive roles some of the governments have played, including Niger’s 3N program, Nigériens Nourrissent les Nigériens.
Mr. Gressly also discusses his perspective on Mali, which has caused 400,000 displaced people, saying what is lacking there is a global understanding and assessment of the humanitarian situation. “We get anecdotal information about what’s going on place by place, but I’m not convinced yet we have a comprehensive picture, and that needs to be done, adding that ”monitoring is not as robust as we would normally like.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Jérémie Labbé: We are here today with Mr. David Gressly, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel since April, 2012. Mr. Gressly, we are very pleased to have you on the Global Observatory today. Mr. Gressly, to start, could you give us a brief update on the current humanitarian situation in the region.

David Gressly: Thank you very much, it’s a real pleasure to be here as well. Basically what I would like to talk about are the three major crises that we see across the Sahel that are having a humanitarian impact. Specifically, the first would be the food and nutrition crisis that everyone warned about at the end of last year that actually materialized this year due to lack of rains and a shortfall of food production. Secondly is the chronic nature, the structural nature of food insecurity, the malnutrition across the region that requires a long-term response, and third is the crisis in Mali itself.

Addressing each of those, where we are on that: on the food and nutrition crisis, the drought last year was severe, was not as bad as the Horn of Africa, but it was bad enough, projected to have an impact on 18 million people in terms of food insecurity, and projected that 1 million children would be at risk of severe acute malnutrition, potentially dying as a result. I have to say that the results have been reasonably good. The governments of the region responded early to call for assistance. Donors responded reasonably early to start providing that assistance, and we have seen generally on the food security and nutrition side a good response on the ground. I think we’ve now gotten through most of the lean season, which is the period of the greatest risk, without major problems. We’ve already seen 500,000-600,000 children treated for severe acute malnutrition as an example of what’s under way. Last month, over 4 million people received food assistance, so the response is well under way and will be contained I think for 2012.

The prospects for 2013 now look reasonably good. There’s been very good rains this year. In some cases too much–there’s some flooding. But generally, the situation on the ground looks positive for 2013. There’s still a threat of locusts, but they have yet to materialize substantially. So I think what we can say on the acute crisis is that the response was early enough to contain most of the suffering that would have happened, deaths that would have happened without that response.

Now, we need to prepare for 2013 to do two major things: one, rebuild households that have suffered from the three droughts since 2005; and secondly, start to work on the chronic nature of the crisis, dealing with the remaining issue of malnutrition. Even in a good year, a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition in the Sahel. A quarter of a million children will die next year, even with the good rains that we see.       

So we need to continue to respond in a way that addresses the needs of those children, even in a good year, and the same with households that are food insecure. That’s where the program of resilience comes in–we can perhaps talk about that in more detail later–the long term development approach that we require to deal with the chronic nature.

The third crisis is the Mali conflict, which basically started in January of this year. It was not expected to be a part of the humanitarian response, but with the conflict in the north, and the fall of the three major regions of the north of Mali into the hands of various armed groups, it became a major humanitarian crisis. To date, nearly 400,000 people have been displaced, either internally inside Mali, or externally in surrounding countries, particularly in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

There, we’ve had I would say less of a more positive response from donors. So far, only some thirty percent, less than forty percent of the needs have been met, which means that the response has been focused on life-saving activities. It also means things like education are not funded or are very poorly funded. I’m concerned about that because children who missed one school year are about to miss their second school year. That poses a number of problems for their long-term prospects. It also makes temptation to join other groups, militia groups and so forth, even greater than it would be otherwise. So that’s an area that I think not only will continue into 2013, but is not adequately addressed as we speak.

Likewise, support to those communities that have welcomed them, whether inside Mali or in the surrounding countries, are not well addressed yet. They’ve been welcome, there’s been no problem with that, but in the long or even the medium term, that could cause tensions, it could cause problems for those host communities.  

JL: You mentioned that despite some important remaining humanitarian challenges, basically the humanitarian situation of our world is getting better: above the average, and unexpected positive impact on the food crisis. Yet, you mentioned the resilience agenda and the need to be there in the longer term. Do you think that this improving situation is really good news? Or do you fear that it might actually create some disinterest from donors in this region that is affected by chronic food and insecurity.

DG: I think that answer to both questions is yes. Yes, it is good news because it means that people will do much better in 2013 than they did in 2012, if you want to call that good news. But the risk is very real, that with the good rains that people, governments, regional institutions, donors, partners in general will lose interest and will be caught by surprise again when the next drought happens. It could happen in 2016, it could happen in 2017. That’s why we really have to use this window of opportunity to change how we do business in the aftermath of a crisis of this nature of a drought. We really need to use this time to really focus development activity to those households that are most vulnerable, that have consistently suffered in the face of drought or rising commodity prices.

The good news, I think, is that the political will to do so is there. The governments in many of the countries concerned are recognizing their responsibilities and are looking forward to try to find ways to address this. I think the government of Niger is one very good example of that. I think major donors are also very much seeing that rather than dealing with the humanitarian consequences of the lack of good development in these areas that we should attack the problem itself.

Regional institutions likewise are interested, and I can tell you the UN system is very interested in seeing this. So we have a growing coalition and partnership that wants to make a difference. What’s important in 2013 is for that partnership to be realized, to be made meaningful with real assistance coming on the ground, development assistance to compliment the humanitarian work that I’ve described to attack the chronic nature of the problem. This will require resources going into agriculture and agricultural productivity, water management, irrigation type issues, but it’s not just a production issue, it’s an access issue, social safety nets need to be put in place so that when food is available on the markets, that those who can’t afford it will have access nonetheless.

Nutrition remains a major killer and underestimated as a structural problem in the region, so prevention of malnutrition will remain a major problem and concern. Livelihoods and livelihood improvement, the population in the region is increasing rapidly: currently in the Sahel and the Sahelian countries we were talking about, over 100 million people live there. That’s likely to double in the next 25 years. The kinds of traditional subsistence agriculture that we see will need to be transformed. Livelihoods will need to be transformed for that kind of population, and the work for that needs to start today, not 20 years from now. So resilience is an important part of what needs to be done to avoid the kinds of response that we’ve required this year, which is 1.6 billion dollars, a smaller investment over a period of time can over that period of time reduce the requirements for major humanitarian intervention.

JL: You mentioned the positive role of some governments in the region in response to this crisis, notably the Nigerian government. This government has put in place an initiative called 3N that stands for Les Nigériens Nourrissent les Nigériens, the French for “Nigerians feeding Nigerians.” Could you tell us a bit more and briefly describe this initiative. What is it about?

DG: Well, it’s a very important initiative by the Nigerian government, and I think we should applaud that. Basically, it’s looking at all the areas that I just described in terms of a comprehensive government program that’s being put in place together with partners like the UN system, the World Bank, the European Union, the US government, etc. I think all of this is a very important opportunity. It’s a government that signaled very early that they were going to have a problem, but also was in a position to design a response, looking at agricultural productivity, looking at prevention of malnutrition, looking at social services and safety nets, a comprehensive program that covers all of those areas, and one that I think that really is worth supporting.

I know that there will be a roundtable in Paris in early November to bring donors and other interested partners around to see how collectively we can support this effort, which I think is very much needed in Niger, but all I can do at this point is just applaud the government of Niger for its focus on this. I think we need to see it in its context. When we look at the Mali crisis itself, we see that it has an impact on other countries. In Niger, they have had to reallocate funds for their own national defense because of the problems of insecurity on their borders. In many ways, this kind of insecurity, this kind of political crisis that we see in Mali represents the greatest threat to any resilience program on the ground, and the fact that they’ve had to allocate resources for that purpose that could have gone for resilience I think is a good example as you are to find. So I think in all of these things a search not only for a development solution but also for a political solution is imperative if we are to avoid long-term humanitarian assistance in the region, and hopefully we’ll see that kind of approach in the next several months.

JL: In your role as Regional Humanitarian Coordinator, I guess that one of your objectives is to encourage the replication of such good practices and good initiatives as the one we just mentioned about in Niger. Did you have any success in this undertaking, in encouraging other governments in the region to replicate these kinds of very positive responses? 

DG: Well, in the various discussions that we’ve had over the last several months, we’ve seen a very positive approach by many governments, whether it’s in Burkina Faso, Chad—I can also mention Mauritania has its own programs as well—trying to address this same set of issues. They approach it obviously in different ways, based upon their national context. But I think there is a broad understanding that goes beyond Niger. Niger I think is a very good example, by not only its government, by the partners on the ground as well, who’ve worked I think extremely well, particularly since 2010 on these kinds of issues with good success.

We have seen the kind that a response on the humanitarian side this year was we were able to see a really rapid buildup because there was a good foundation to work with. So I think that combination of a proactive government, and a UN system that’s very much working in an integrated fashion, committed donors on the ground is a very positive one and one that we’re seeing how we can try to replicate in other areas, and Chad’s another opportunity where that could be done.
So I think, yes, we are working on that. I think Niger is advancing in many ways in that regard, but many governments in the region are also interested in pursuing that same thing, and I think it’s now important for those partners who have serious financing to put on the table to do so and make real these aspirations.

JL: You mentioned several times the complicated situation in Mali. I’d like to focus more on this country now. Could you tell us a bit more about the situation on the ground in terms of humanitarian needs of the population, and also develop a bit the issue of humanitarian access, and the difficulties in this regard. Who are the actors, the humanitarian actors present in the region, how can you deliver aid?

DG: Overall, I think the most important thing to start with, which is counterintuitive, is that 80 percent of the humanitarian requirements in Mali are actually in the south of Mali. It’s where 90 percent of the population lives, and with the food and nutrition crisis that we saw this year actually most of the humanitarian needs were in the south. It’s easy to forget that because of the political issues with the north. Now, in the south, I think the situation is largely–as I described it across the Sahel–a reasonably good response, an improving situation from 2012, so the focus will be the same there as in the other countries: rebuilding and focusing on the chronic nature of food and security and malnutrition.

As for the north, I mentioned the displacement, which is already a significant problem. For those who remain behind, the situation is not totally dire but extremely difficult. The economy in the north has basically collapsed with the movement of the armed groups into the area, though trade continues into northern Mali, both from the South and from other countries. Humanitarian assistance is coming in, basically unhindered by armed groups on the ground. I’m not trying to make it sound like it’s easy, but it does work.

The WFP is currently delivering food to 170,000 people a month in the north of Mali, using the river based out of the logistics base in Mopti, using the river to make those distributions further north. UNICEF and WHO are putting in a lot of assistance through local NGOs and international NGOs, which remain on the ground. What we have found is that Malian humanitarian workers regardless of who they work for are still very welcome in the north of Mali and are still effective, and it’s through those channels that humanitarian assistance is now going.

Initially, there was some issue over whether some of these groups should be involved in the distribution or protection of that assistance, but that seems to have now been resolved, and humanitarian work basically is done distributing without the involvement of other groups; it’s directly to the communities themselves. So it seems to be working for the moment, certainly in the major cities in the north.

What we’re lacking right now are two major things: one is a global understanding, assessment of the humanitarian situation. We get anecdotal information about what’s going on place by place, but I’m not convinced yet we have a comprehensive picture, and that needs to be done; and secondly, the fact that we’re doing it through the system I described means that monitoring is not as robust as we would normally like. So we need to strengthen our ability to monitor how assistance is delivered. The fact that things go reasonably well for the moment does not mean that that will continue like that indefinitely, so we need to do a better job I believe on the risk management of that assistance, and we’re working on that with the humanitarian team on the ground.

We also need to be aware of the potential consequences of the degradation of security. Either internal conflict or military intervention could change that dynamic once again, so we’re preparing contingencies for that as we speak, in the case that things get considerably worse.

JL: Mr. Gressly, thank you very much for joining us today on the Global Observatory, and I wish you the best of luck for the complicated task ahead.

DG: Thank you very much, it’s very much a pleasure to be here today, thank you.