Statement by IFAD President at the high-level meeting on the situation in the Sahel

Esteemed colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

We are here today because we have all heard the warning bell ringing in the Sahel. Today, drought threatens not just the livelihoods but the very lives of millions of people in the region.

This is not the first, or even the second such crisis. It is the fourth time in less than ten years that the children, women and men of the Sahel have faced hunger and possible starvation because of drought.

Hunger is an atrocity, a terrible atrocity, made worse because it does not need to exist. Even where there is drought.

The word "hunger" is not strong enough to express what the people of the Sahel are experiencing.

The situation we face today is the result – at least in part – of decades of failure to build resilience to drought and natural calamity by investing in agriculture.

This neglect is shameful. Agriculture has a particular power when it comes to reducing poverty and feeding people. GDP growth generated by agriculture is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.

Today we must do everything we can to feed the millions of hungry people in the Sahel, through our own efforts at the United Nations and by supporting regional efforts to strengthen markets and early warning systems.

But we must ensure that the work and the funding for long-term resilience continues, even after this particular emergency has passed and the spotlight has moved on to another part of the world.

As Bill Gates so eloquently stated in a recent op-ed:  let us convert some of the generosity that goes into humanitarian relief into stronger support for foreign aid programmes.

Unless foreign aid is directed towards long term solutions, tragedies such as the ones witnessed in the Horn of Africa and now threatening the Sahel will keep recurring.

We will fail the people of the Sahel if our efforts today do not help build their resilience for tomorrow. This means investing in sustainable smallholder agriculture and livestock systems. It means investing in feeder roads and food storage systems so that food can be stored safely and reach those who need it.

And it means empowering women -- as farmers and community leaders -- because women are not only farmers, they safeguard family nutrition. And today, one million children in the Sahel are in danger of malnourishment.

Over the years, IFAD has supported 70 projects in the Sahel and South Sudan, directly benefiting more than 1.5 million households.

Let me share just one more example. For years, poor people in many parts of the Sahel cut down trees for fuel and building and extensively exploited other native plants.  But without the trees and grasses, the land became unproductive and the crops failed.

For more than a decade now, IFAD has been supporting projects that encourage people to change their farming practices. Farmers are valuing and nurturing native trees and plants, and today, parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are greener than they were 30 years ago.
This is particularly important during times of drought, where evidence shows that the villages that have implemented re-greening activities have higher incomes and lower rates of infant mortality.

At IFAD, we see every day how the lives of individuals, and of whole communities, can be transformed through investment in agriculture and rural areas.

And so, as we discuss how to prevent further tragedy in so much of the Sahel, I offer this message of hope.  Let us scale-up what has already been proven to work.

Let us invest in sustainable smallholder agriculture that protects the environment and offers resilience to extreme weather.  Let us invest in better roads and stronger ties to markets so that food can get to where it is needed most. And let us give particular support to women farmers, who are the key to ensuring food and nutrition security in the home.

By doing this, we will enable poor rural people to grow more food and earn more money so that they can feed themselves, even in times of drought. Not just for today, but for tomorrow and for years to come.

Rome, 15 February 2012