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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Local response to a 'food crisis'
In the second of a series of articles by Scottish Oxfam workers, David Crawford, from Glasgow, talks about challenges in drought-stricken West Africa.

As a member of Oxfam's humanitarian support team, I can be deployed globally at short notice. My job is to provide short-term leadership or support in emergencies or humanitarian situations.

David Crawford
David Crawford works with Oxfam teams across West Africa

From last October, I have been based in West Africa as the senior humanitarian adviser for the Sahel region - Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

I provide management support and humanitarian advice as Oxfam responds to the food crisis that has affected almost 4.2 million people.

I spend most of time travelling between the three countries.

The terrain is desert, either the classic sand dune landscapes or more often vast areas of arid flat scrub or bush land.

It is an inhospitable land and one where water is extremely difficult to find and get out of the ground.

It is not uncommon in the Aftout region in Mauritania to find people who have to travel 14 kilometres to find water.

'Coping strategies'

Although the media focused on the impact of the food crisis in Niger, Mali and Mauritania were also seriously affected.

The food crisis was widely perceived in the media to relate to food shortages which then caused widespread hunger and malnutrition.

A amlnourished child in Niger

Once the coping strategies are exhausted they become completely reliant on outside help - if it arrives

Although this played an important role at a local level, it wasn't the main cause as the following example illustrates.

During the crisis, Niger was still exporting food and staple cereals were available in the markets.

The problem, however, was the poorest and most vulnerable people hadn't produced enough grain to survive and couldn't afford to buy it in the markets.

Once people run out of money they turn to "coping strategies", for instance getting into debt or selling off their assets including their valuable animals.

Once the coping strategies are exhausted they become completely reliant on outside help - if it arrives.

This is an important point to understand, particularly in terms of how agencies like Oxfam shaped their response.

'Help themselves'

The basic premise is that people will cope with a food crisis if they are empowered to do so.

For the poorest people who are vulnerable to food crisis, the main problem is access to food, not availability of food - food is usually available but they can't get it.

Traditionally this means delivering food aid but this is a very top down approach and one that leaves people as recipients, dependent on more hand-outs.

Women from Niger collect water from a well
Much of our work involves helping people to help themselves

Oxfam's approach has been to help people to help themselves.

That means understanding the underlying root causes and how the poorest people's livelihoods and coping strategies have been affected over time through chronic poverty.

We then make assessments and work with communities to quickly develop short-term mitigation programmes to address issues relating to access to food and put in place longer term programmes that address the root causes and underlying issues.

Local determination

In the last six months, Oxfam have undertaken a wide variety of projects including the drilling of boreholes and construction of wells to provide water.

A boy suffering from malnutrition in Niger
The satisfaction of making a difference to people who are faced with a daily battle against poverty make for a rewarding working life

Cash for work projects help people get the money they need to buy grain.

Cash for work is also designed to help people and their communities.

Other initiatives include providing cash grants to help people out of debt and restocking animals to help people get an income from milk production.

In many ways the challenges in drought-stricken West Africa have proven different from post-tsunami Sri Lanka, where I previously worked.

There are similarities as well, not least the determination of the local people to help themselves and their dignity in the wake of adversity.

With Oxfam tackling the effects of over thirty emergencies around the world, many of which don't make the news back home in Scotland, I don't know where I will be posted next.

However, the challenges of responding to emergency situations and the satisfaction of making a difference to people who are faced with a daily battle against poverty make for a rewarding working life.




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