Calling on business leaders to find solutions for the crisis in the Sahel

July 10, 2012
I recently had the opportunity to organize a roundtable discussion on the emergency in Africa's Sahel region. The event, co-hosted by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the Corporate Council on Africa, provided corporate participants an overview of the crisis and explained the impact of drought and malnutrition on the region. Guillaume Sauval, Emergency Specialist at UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs, explained that the causes of hunger and malnutrition in the region are deeply rooted, with chronic underdevelopment and multiple droughts in recent years leaving the population vulnerable, even to small shocks. As a result, last year’s below-average rainfall and crop shortages severely impacted communities in the Sahel, particularly those still recovering from the 2009/2010 food crisis. UNICEF now estimates that more than 15 million people in the Sahel are currently at risk of malnutrition, including nearly 1.1 million children who face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.  Sauval noted that the region-wide malnutrition crisis has been exacerbated by the deteriorating security situation in several countries. In Mali, for instance, insecurity related to the recent coup d’état has resulted in significant displacement, forcing more than 320,000 people from their homes. He explained how many of these individuals fled to neighboring countries—Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger—straining already-limited resources in communities coping with food insecurity.  During the roundtable discussion, company representatives took advantage of the opportunity to ask Sauval specific questions about the gravity of the crisis and its effect on the countries in which they work. Some were astounded to learn of the scale of malnutrition in places like northern Nigeria, which has the region’s second highest caseload of severely malnourished children. Two of UNICEF’s current corporate partners, UPS and American Airlines, also spoke about their companies’ response to the crisis. A UPS representative explained how his company donated a charter flight to Mauritania in late April; UNICEF used this flight to deliver critical nutrition, medical, and water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to food insecure Mauritanians, as well as to thousands of refugees from Mali. (UPS later organized a second, interagency flight of lifesaving supplies to the region.) An American Airlines representative discussed how American’s employees rallied around the cause and donated a portion of the funds collected through UNICEF’s Change for Good program on American Airlines to support the food-insecure populations. We are very grateful to the companies present for their participation and support of UNICEF. In recent months, UNICEF and its partners have substantially scaled up programs throughout the Sahel to meet the increasing nutrition caseload. The number of health centers in the Sahel offering treatment for severe acute malnutrition, for instance, has nearly doubled since early 2011—enabling UNICEF and partners to treat more than 249,800 severely malnourished children under age five. In Mali alone, more severely malnourished children were treated in health centers during the first four months of 2012 than in all 2011. However, in the critical months ahead, this crisis will require UNICEF and others to work across sectors to simultaneously address not only the immediate threats posed by malnutrition, but also those associated with measles, meningitis, cholera and displacement. To accomplish this, UNICEF and its partners will require additional resources and flexible support from governments, the private sector and other stakeholders. The Sahel briefing and roundtable discussion served not only to educate participants on the evolving crisis in the Sahel, but also as a forum that allowed business leaders to discuss challenges and solutions among a group of their peers. It is my hope that convening corporate stakeholders around similar topics of interest will help the U.S. Fund for UNICEF raise awareness for other silent emergencies, as well as generate continued support for UNICEF’s lifesaving work in the Sahel. Read this Washington Post feature on UNICEF's support of a revolutionary health and feeding center in Niger, one of the nine countries in the Sahel region in Africa. If you would like to support UNICEF's efforts to help children in the Sahel, please visit our donation page.