WFP chief calls for support to combat "perfect storm" over Africa's rural poor

Published on 15 November 2007

Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of WFP, has urged the international community to take firmer action to help West Africa’s rural poor struggling against climate change, rising food prices and population growth.

Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme, has urged the international

I have seen in West Africa what havoc could be caused by the triple threat of climate change, rising food prices and population growth
Josette Sheeran, WFP Executive Director

community to take firmer action to help West Africa’s rural poor struggling against climate change, rising food prices and population growth.

Sheeran warned these combined factors threatened to unleash a “perfect storm” on the world’s 850 million hungry people and said time was running out to build resilience.

Havoc

“I have seen in West Africa what havoc could be caused by the triple threat of climate change, rising food prices and population growth. But I have also seen that there are solutions to help people adapt before it is too late,” said Josette Sheeran.

“We must help people to protect themselves and their families. It’s a large order but with the support of the international community we can do it -- we must do it,” she said.

Across Africa, WFP and its partners help people to adapt to climate change. Community-based projects use food assistance in ways that make valuable contributions to reforestation and the prevention of soil erosion, and the construction of small dams or irrigation projects.

"Dramatic battle"

Sheeran was speaking at a news conference in Dakar at the end of a four-day visit to Senegal and Mali, where she travelled to Timbuktu to see WFP projects which combat the debilitating impact of climate change, malnutrition, low school enrolment rates and food insecurity.

West Africa, and particularly the arid Sahel region, is fighting a dramatic battle against the elements, soaring global commodity prices and poverty. The Sahara desert is creeping farther and farther south, devouring once fertile arable land and submerging pasturelands.

Biofuels

Rising demand for biofuels and high fuel prices are having a dramatic impact on millions of people in the region. Food prices in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal have risen sharply in 2007. WFP is closely monitoring food production in countries with substantial needs.

In countries such as Mauritania, where national production only provides 30 percent of national needs, the impact of higher international prices has led to tensions this month and threatens to turn into a food crisis next year if more funds are not pledged.

“High world prices for grains have made our operations more challenging than ever. The overall cost of WFP reaching a hungry person has gone up by 50 per cent in the last five years,” said Sheeran.

"Silent emergency"

Some 1.5 million children under the age of five (13 per cent) in the Sahel are acutely malnourished -- is the highest proportion in any region of the world. This “silent emergency” kills more than 300,000 children in West Africa every year. Even children who survive never catch up.

West Africa also has some of the lowest primary school enrolment rates in the world with in many cases less than half of children receiving a proper education. Girls are usually the first to miss out.

Through its school-feeding programme, WFP is helping to turn this around, not just getting more children into school, but keeping them there with a full stomach, able to learn and retain information.

Dignity

“The dignity and perseverance of the people I have spent time with is all the more remarkable when you consider how close to the edge many of them live. Helping people across West Africa to adapt to the increasingly unpredictable threats of the 21st century is urgent,” said Sheeran.

WFP is purchasing more food in West Africa itself to help poor families and develop local economies. Local purchases went from 13 percent of the total purchase in the West Africa region in 2005 to 30 percent this year. In addition, this year two plants in Cameroon and Burkina Faso started producing fortified maize meal with WFP support.