Interview with John Ging, Director of Operations, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

John Ging, Director of Operations. Photo: OCHA

10 April 2012 – Stretching 4,500 kilometres across Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the Sahel region is home to more than 50 million people. Except along the banks of the major rivers, lakes, and other seasonal water courses, farming in this region is almost entirely reliant on three to four months of summer rainfall.

Now, a combination of factors, including inadequate rainfall that reduced harvests, high food prices and the effects of civil strife in some areas, have created food shortages and disrupted livelihoods for an estimated 15 million people across the region.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been actively engaged in the Sahel. Its Director of Operations, John Ging, visiting three of the affected countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania – last month, and spoke with the UN News Centre soon after his return to UN Headquarters.

UN News Centre:What is your general assessment of the situation in the Sahel?

John Ging: Firstly, the humanitarian situation in all of the countries in the Sahel region is quite appalling, and I would emphasize the plight of children as a good example. Last year 600,000 children under the age of five died – over 200,000 of them died of malnutrition. This should not be happening in this day and age.

We are facing an even bigger crisis this year, with a million children vulnerable to severe acute malnutrition. Over 15 million people in the region are suffering the effects of the food and nutrition crisis. Climate has changed. It’s much... a lot of people are dying and going to continue to die until we can actually get the funding that is needed. more difficult to sustain the population in the region.

There is also the issue of conflict and political instability. So the situation overall in the Sahel region for millions of human beings there is really appalling in terms of the daily conditions that they are living in at the moment.

UN News Centre: What is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs doing to help?

John Ging: The solution to this crisis in the Sahel is not a humanitarian response. The humanitarian response is a contribution to the solution. The solution is development. It is building livelihoods. We must save lives of course, in the meantime, but we must also work towards building livelihoods that can be resilient in the context within which people are living. That is what the whole emphasis and focus is now, with the national government plans in the region and also with the international aid and development effort – to bring it all together in a way that actually helps to build a sustainable solution going forward.

The climactic conditions, for example, in the region are not going to change, this is the new reality. Population growth is also a reality that will continue. And the other challenges that are faced in the region – we’ve got to embrace these challenges in finding the solutions.

A young Malian refugee girl is about to drink the unclean water she has fetched from a local well in Ferrerio site, northern Burkina Faso. Photo: UNHCR/H. Caux

UN News Centre: What are the national authorities in the Sahel doing?

John Ging: In the three countries that I have just visited, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, I met with the more senior government officials and was hugely impressed. They have taken a very open and honest approach to tackling the challenges that are faced. This requires political courage and real leadership, because these things can be too easily politicized. But in all of these countries, as I say, I was very impressed by the approach that is being taken and it is an approach that is grounded in humanity. It’s focussed on people, it’s very practical and pragmatic. They are looking at how their national effort can build this resilience, to strengthen the livelihoods of people to be able to cope with the challenges that they are facing and that they will continue to face.

In practical terms, it means better use of water. It means more conservation so that there will be more irrigation, more land can be brought in and used for agricultural purposes, better use of fertilization and fertilizers, while keeping in mind the ecological impact, and many other initiatives such as crop selection, higher performing, higher yielding crops, livestock management, more attention to livestock welfare, vaccinations and so on. These are all practical steps that are being taken right now that will have a longer-term and positive impact.

But it’s not just about livelihoods, of course. It’s beyond that when we talk about children. Education is a key priority in the region for all of the governments and all of our aid and development partners because these children, who are the future, if they don’t get an education now, they will not be able to unlock their economic potential in the future.

So, while we are struggling and working hard, all of us together, to give these children the support that they need in nutrition and food and so on, that is not enough. We also have to link that into making sure that they are getting education and that is quite a challenge in the region, but, again, all governments are very committed to that.

UN News Centre: What impact has the political instability in Mali had on the situation?

Malian refugee women wait with their children to receive relief items from UNHCR in Gaoudel, Ayorou district, northern Niger. Photo: UNHCR/H. Caux

John Ging: Sadly, the new crisis in Mali has repercussions across the region. First and foremost, we already have 100,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries. It creates even more insecurity and instability, and it creates a lot of concern across the region which has a lot of challenges facing it without this new and additional challenge, but we sincerely hope the situation there will be quickly stabilized.

For us in the humanitarian community, we are focused on the plight of the people – not the politics of the situation – and those of us who are focused on the plight of the people are very concerned for the people because the people in Mali and those who are fleeing Mali are of course the victims of all of this.

It is a race against time to help the vulnerable, particularly children and women and the elderly across the region – and that’s the alarm that we are raising. We’ve got the plans, we’ve got the people on the ground, they know what they are doing, they know what has to be done, but there is a severe funding shortfall. Less than 40 per cent of our programming is funded.

UN News Centre: What message are you sending to donors?

John Ging: The message to everybody is that there is a crisis already in the Sahel. There is very good programming to tackle this crisis. There is a tremendous amount of life-saving and development work going on right now. You can see the impact for very modest resources in the life-saving work that is going on and also in building resilience.

I really don’t want people to think that this is a black hole, that it is a hopeless situation. It’s not. For a small modest investment, not just lives can be saved, but livelihoods can be restored.

Director of Operations John Ging on the Sahel (UNTV) 29 Mar '12. Credit: OCHA

And now with all of this programming and planning that is out there, it is the funding that is missing. Yes, we are getting tens of millions of dollars and that is great. That is saving lives and you can see the impact straight away, but it’s just not enough.

As I said, 40 per cent [in funding] means that 60 per cent is unfunded and that means that a lot of people are dying and going to continue to die until we can actually get the funding that is needed.

My other message to donors is that they know perfectly well that prevention is less expensive than response. So if we can get the money now, it will actually be less expensive than responding to something like a famine in the future. We saw this in the Horn of Africa. We are all very energized. I know the donor community are, as well, to learn the lessons from the Horn of Africa last year so that we don’t have a repetition in the Sahel, and now is the time to step up with the money.

UN News Centre: Is the crisis receiving enough attention from the international community or have events elsewhere taken away some of its attention?

John Ging: It is correct to say media attention is focused elsewhere and, understandably, the political crises elsewhere are taking a lot of political attention – and that is perfectly understandable, and perfectly correct in fact.

I think that our job as humanitarians is to make sure that the plight of the human beings – the 15 million in the Sahel region who are now at risk due to this crisis – that their plight is conveyed effectively to the decision-makers.

From my point of view, I don’t think that we should rely exclusively on getting the television cameras to the Sahel. I think that decision-makers know perfectly well what the dynamics are. We have all the data. There are very compelling plans to respond with and to prevent a catastrophe here.

We are sending the message through every channel to communicate to those who have the decision-making authority to release the funding that is needed, and, if they have any doubt, come to the region and see the very positive impact from the funding that has been received.

There is a very big impact already under way, but it’s just not big enough. It just does not cover all of the people who need to be covered.

John Ging with Prime Minister Brigi Rafini of Niger in Niamey. Photo: OCHA

UN News Centre: How does seeing so much suffering affect you?

John Ging: As a human being, one is struck by the dignity of the people that one finds in these circumstances. They are very dignified and they are very resilient. That is very inspiring.

One, of course, becomes very emotional about their plight because for very modest resources they can be helped very effectively.

We are also reminded that these climate changes that are affecting them so severely have not been created by these communities. So they are really in this very awful status, not of their own making. And yet when one interacts with them, their demands, their requests are very modest and very inspiring – so all of us in the aid community are usually motivated to respond and to try and channel our emotions into some effective advocacy, some effective work.

UN News Centre: Is there anything you would like to add?

John Ging: The key message in the Sahel is that we are in a race against time. We have a tremendous humanitarian and development effort underway in harmony and concert with the national governments’ plans in the region.

This is a very effective response when one goes out there and sees what is happening on the ground. The problem is it is not big enough.

So, we have to get the money now, otherwise we are going to be facing a similar situation that we had in the Horn of Africa last year and the tragedy of that is that so many people will lose their lives, particularly children, in the meantime. And the response will be even more expensive if we allow the situation to deteriorate to that point.

This is my message: that it is time to act now to avoid a catastrophe in the Sahel.

Read related news story:

UN warns lack of funds threatens response to food crisis in Africa’s Sahel region