Mali crisis raises West Africa famine threat

Political instability in Mali is threatening a region already at risk of hunger, experts from West Africa said Thursday, urging the Canadian government to co-ordinate a response.

Canada can help by co-ordinating donors, Oxfam says

The threat of famine across West Africa is getting worse with the political crisis in Mali, experts and aid workers said Thursday, urging the Canadian government to co-ordinate a response from other countries.

Canada should call together an international forum to pledge money for the region, and make sure the money is delivered, Oxfam Canada's executive director Robert Fox said.

Canada has credibility on the international stage and can play that role, he said, "to ensure that we don’t have in West Africa what we saw last year in East Africa, where millions of people were moved from being vulnerable to in fact being in a situation of deep hunger and starvation."

Canada has already promised $41 million in funding for the region, Fox said. The money is for pre-positioning supplies and to reduce the impact of the drought that hit the area.

A spokesman for International Co-Operation Minister Bev Oda said the Canadian International Development Agency is monitoring the situation.

The political crisis in Mali, that saw a military coup in the capital and Tuareg rebels declaring independence in the country's north, is worsening an already precarious situation because Mali's food reserves aren't accessible, and the borders are closed, said Mamadou Goïta.

At the same time, people migrating to find work or food are making the situation worse in neighbouring countries. Goïta is a socio-economist who works for an organization that represents West African farmers and peasants.

"We know also that Mali has, between the Sahel countries, the biggest reserve of food in terms of capacity to afford some of the supply to Niger or Mauritania," he said.

"Because of the coup ... there was no movement of population, also products, between Mali and these countries."

Food prices shot up when Mali's border closed, he said.

"In addition to the crisis that is happening in the country, neighbouring countries are facing consequences.

A news release from Oxfam says food shortages, price hikes, and other factors are threatening the lives of 15 million people in the Sahel region that includes Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and The Gambia.

Food crisis looms

Aid groups have been warning for months that unusually small rainfall in the region could lead to a crisis like the one last summer in the Horn of Africa, made up of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya.

Acting early costs less than waiting for the situation to get worse, Oxfam says.

But getting countries to follow through on their pledges is a major problem.

G8 countries pledged $20 billion U.S. support over three years at a 2009 donors conference in L'Aquila, Italy, but it hasn't all been put to work.

"I’m not sure that today those $20 billion have been already mobilized and was new money and arrived on the ground," said Eric Hazard, a Senegal-based Oxfam International co-ordinator.

Donor countries will meet in November, 2012, to look at the results, he added.

"But I think that between the promise and the translation of this promise into realities is the big question."

Goïta also asked for help enhancing the capacity of small-scale farmers. Sixty per cent of the population in Mali works in small-scale farming, Hazard said, but much of the private sector investment goes to large agri-business.

The Oxfam visitors are also meeting officials at CIDA, the news release said.

Mali is one of the countries on which CIDA focuses its aid spending, contributing $110 million in 2010-11, but Canada suspended aid to the country on March 26 after the coup.