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“Conflict is moving forward and moving fast,” says Margot van der Velden, Director of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Emergencies division.


She is describing the Central Sahel, a region in Africa including Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where it is estimated 20 million people are living in areas affected by conflict and 2.4 million people are in need of food assistance — a figure that could rise due to continued displacements.


“Historically, structurally very poor, it does not have the major investments it needs ... it’s an climate-shock prone area, with the highest temperature and the least natural resources for agriculture"


“In January there were about 80,000 people displaced in Burkina Faso, now there are around 486,000 people displaced”  — with a further 250,000 are across Mali and Niger. The total figure for the region is set to reach 1 million in coming weeks.

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With those two countries also on the brink, in September, WFP declared Central Sahel a Level 3 emergency — its highest grade. The Sahel is a tragic masterclass in how violence and extreme weather feed into each other.


In Sahelian countries 60 percent of the population is aged under 25, with limited access to job opportunities and social services. Chronic levels of malnutrition, food insecurity, and poverty and inequality are prevalent across the countries — with a population that is getting younger and younger, some are joining armed groups.


Hard-won gains in resilience-building and development risk collapsing. From January until September in Niger, WFP assisted 9,700 adolescent schoolgirls with scholarships. Today schools are shutting — in many conflict-affected areas one in three children cannot attend.

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WFP has assisted 2.6 million people across the three countries this year and requires urgent investment and a scaled-up response in order to protect the progress achieved in ongoing programmes, particularly resilience-building.


An estimated 20 million people live in areas affected by conflict across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and 2.4 million people are in need of food assistance.
An estimated 20 million people live in areas affected by conflict across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, and 2.4 million people are in need of food assistance.

“Every day there are people coming from their villages with horror stories that they were just able to escape. Some try to go back and see if they can get some of their belongings and they don’t come back, so it is assumed they’re killed … it’s really horror stories.”


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WFP is also focused on supporting host families, who receive displaced people — hospitality wears thin quickly when those who’ve next to nothing themselves take in dozens of guests.


With the threat of drought hanging over Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, WFP is working with the Central Sahel countries, UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization and many local and international humanitarian partners.


What is required immediately is global attention, political and diplomatic efforts, and enormous support for people on the ground — saving lives, with an emphasis on sustainable development.


That means, in addition to humanitarian response, we should act collectively in the buffer zones — those areas of the country at risk of slipping into violence — to avoid further catastrophe.

“We haven’t had a large-scale drought in these areas but we know at some point a major drought will happen — because that is cyclical in the Sahel.”