Interview with David Gressly, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Sahel

David Gressly, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Sahel. Photo: UN/T. McKulka

19 July 2012 – Africa’s Sahel region – which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and includes parts of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Gambia, Nigeria and Senegal, amongst others – is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

UN humanitarian agencies estimate that there are currently more than 18 million people facing food insecurity in the region, due to a combination of drought and volatile food prices, as well as political instability in some areas.

In April this year, David Gressly, a UN official with experience in relief work, was appointed to the position of Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Sahel. His role is to oversee and coordinate the humanitarian response at the regional level and ensure coherence among relief efforts across the various countries.

While at UN Headquarters recently, the UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Gressly about the situation in the Sahel crisis.

UN News Centre: How severe is this crisis?

David Gressly: We believe right now that 18.7 million people are affected by food insecurity, and 1.1 million children could be suffering from severe acute malnutrition in 2012. Severe acute malnutrition is a very serious condition with a very high risk of dying, [with] mortality rates of 25 to 60 per cent, depending on the conditions – it’s severe.

UN News Centre: What has caused this latest crisis?

David Gressly: We’re looking at nine different countries, just to put it in context, [that’s] 120 million people [in] an area ten times the size of FraThere will still be issues related to the insecurity in Mali and the refugee crisis, but the nutrition crisis can be contained if this funding continues at the rate that we’re seeing.nce. There are lot of commonalities, however, across this region.

The Sahel is a borderland with the Sahara desert; therefore, rain fluctuation is quite common and you sometimes get periods with drought. And right now, we’re going through a series of droughts – we had one in 2005, again in 2010, and now we’re seeing the same thing this year.

So across the Sahel band – it’s patchy, it varies from country to country – we’re seeing much lower [food] production this year and, more importantly, higher prices food, which means even when food is available, it may not be accessible to many people. They just can’t afford to buy it.

UN News Centre: What has the international community’s response been?

David Gressly: The good news on all of this is that we started late last year, when the first projections came in of food insecurity and high rates of malnutrition, and donors have been very receptive as well to this early warning that came from Governments [and] from international organizations, and as a result, we’ve been able to mobilize considerable resources.

Mr. Gressly on a recent visit to Mopti, Mali. Photo: UNDP/N. Meulders

We need $1.6 billion. About half of that has already been mobilized, which is now being used to get food [and] nutrition support into all nine countries, and to deal with the refugee crisis around Mali. So that response is well underway.

And we have the possibility – if the funding continues – we have the possibility of seeing this crisis through without major catastrophe. We can have a success here in the Sahel. There are always challenges, there are always concerns – it’s going to take hard work. The food is flowing, but it’s still subject to continued funding. The same [goes] for support for malnutrition – as said, there are very high rates of mortality in these conditions.

We’re seeing some shortfalls in funding for health and water – that’s important too, because you can save someone’s life from food insecurity, you can save their life from malnutrition… but they may still die from cholera or diarrhoeal disease, so there has to be a complete package and we don’t quite have that package yet, in terms of funding.

UN News Centre: How much support has the humanitarian appeal for the Sahel received?

David Gressly: It’s been reasonably good, I have to say. I think we have to congratulate donors – we need to, first of all, congratulate Governments for making an early call on this, an early warning, which allowed [the UN] as well as donor partners to mobilize resources early.

The heads of a wide range of UN humanitarian and government agencies gathered in Rome this year to discuss the crisis in the Sahel region. UN/WFP/R. Skullerud

We’re at about 50 per cent right now of the $1.6 billion that I’ve described, which in normal terms compared to other appeals, is not too bad. And that has allowed an earlier response this time.

What’s important now is not to lose the gains that we’ve had from an earlier response. We need to insure that that funding continued to the end of the lean season, which will be September or October, basically. And if that that funding is sustained, the personnel are on the ground, the commitment is on the ground to see this through, we can contain the food and nutrition crisis that we’ve been talking about.

There will still be issues related to the insecurity in Mali and the refugee crisis, but the nutrition crisis can be contained if this funding continues at the rate that we’re seeing.

UN News Centre: Humanitarian crises seem to be a regular occurrence in the Sahel. What is being done in the longer-term?

David Gressly: This is a very common observation, in fact – and, for once, I think that there’s a growing consensus among Governments in the region, among donors and certainly among the UN agencies, that we need to find a way to break this cycle. We cannot continue to simply respond to an acute crisis, [to] invest $1.6 billion simply to respond to an emergency.

It’s important to have an investment earlier that deals with the structural causes of this, which are related to agricultural productivity, access to food, high rates of malnutrition. If those can be addressed between these acute crises, then we can build the resilience of households so that they can absorb the shock of future droughts – and there will be a drought in the future – and when that happens in the future, if these actions are taken now, we can avoid this huge requirement for significant funding and a massive relief effort to try to sustain people, if those systems are in place at the country level.

A child stands by a dried up riverbed near the World Food Programme (WFP) food-and-cash for work site in Deouli, Tahoua Region, Niger. UN/WFP/P. Behan

This is going to take a broad coalition of partners to work. It cannot simply be the United Nations. First of all, it’s going to have to require – and I think it’s there – the active support of Governments in the region. And we’re seeing this time a real interest by many of these governments to move forward on that.

Secondly, there needs to be sustained donor funding that allows this kind of work to continue between crises, and there now seems to be a will for that as well.

Thirdly, there’s a role for regional institutions – ECOWAS [the Economic Community Of West African States] being one of them – those institutions can also provide support, back-up support really, to the different countries in the region, so those institutions can be further developed together with the UN and other development partners. Because, in the end, it’s much more of a development question than a humanitarian question.

As I mentioned with the political issues, failures of development can also lead to humanitarian crises. So we need to work hand in hand with development partners to find a way for families in these countries to really be in a position to absorb future shocks, particularly drought. I think it can be done, I think the will is there to have it done – we just need to see it through operationally.

I think if that happens, when the next drought hits, all of these countries will be in better positioned to absorb it.

Mr. Gressly looks on as food and cooking oil are distributed to displaced people from northern Mali in a temporary shelter in Mopti. Photo: UNDP/N. Meulders

UN News Centre: How has the political situation in some areas affected the humanitarian situation?

David Gressly: It’s compounded now by the insecurity we see, particularly in Mali, but also a bit in Nigeria, particularly in northern Nigeria. The loss of control by the Government of the north of Mali has provoked a large movement of refugees and internally displaced persons, over 350,000 people have left – 200,000 as refugees in surrounding countries and 150,000 inside Mali itself.

Some of this will require political solutions, which is beyond the humanitarian community. Unfortunately, we deal with the consequences of unsolved political problems in many cases – and this is one of those.

What’s important, I think, is to recognize that what we’re seeing evolve in Mali is a very dangerous combination. We have not only the refugee situation that I’ve described, not only do we see a loss of control by the Government in the north, but [we see] the potential for this to spread to other countries – increasing the insecurity [and] increasing the difficulty to build resilience that we talked about earlier. On the other hand, building up resilience [and] reaching out to marginalized communities which are most tempted by these kinds of rebellions and so forth is a way to help check that.

While a political solution needs to be found, a development solution also needs to be found in these areas, so that there’s a sustained development, a sustained resilience among communities, and a sense that they belong to the countries in which they are resident. It’s very important that we move forward on that agenda as well.

A woman is assisted by the World Food Programme (WFP)'s food and cash distribution centre in Bargadja, Niger. UN/WFP/P. Behan

UN News Centre: You have prior experience in the region and dealing with humanitarian crises. How has that informed you with the Sahelian crisis?

David Gressly: I was appointed on a Monday, and on Tuesday I was in Mali to try to work out how we can improve our response to both the food and nutrition [issue] as well as the insecurity problem in the north of Mali.

I’ve worked in a number of countries, most recently in South Sudan, and you just learn that time is of the essence. And if you’re going to make a difference, the earlier you react, the better.

I think this is perhaps representative of what we’ve seen generally from the humanitarian community: a recognition to act faster, to respond better and to get the job done on time.