What the Sahel Needs

"Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life." So goes the parable that development workers the world over have repeated for the past half century. As Mali and the wider Sahel region are engulfed in yet another drought, yet another hunger season, the "teach a man to fish" saying is once again being trotted out. The figures are staggering: 18 million directly affected by the drought, over 1 million children at risk of what medical experts call severe, acute malnutrition – in plain terms, at risk of dying or of suffering from stunting that will permanently affect their cognitive functioning. The U.S. government is intent on making the Sahel food crisis a "teachable moment" about the importance of "building resilience," and some nongovernmental groups are willing to go along.

Resilience means the ability to withstand severe shocks, like the current drought in the Sahel, and continue to create wealth for one's family and community. So what could possibly be wrong with focusing on building resilience?

The problem is not resilience as such but a danger that intervention based on the resilience argument alone diverts attention from responding in a meaningful way to the current humanitarian crisis. The risk is that the term hides the stark reality of the 6.4 million people affected by the food crisis in Niger and 3.5 million people in Mali, the geographical and humanitarian epicenter of the crisis.

Mali is a country the size of Texas and California combined where sudden political instability has led to the northern part of the country being taken over by an array of armed groups ranging from ethnic Tuareg secessionists to al-Qaeda affiliated fundamentalists. Reports from the North are scarce, but more than 300,000 people have fled the region to seek refuge either within their borders or in neighboring countries. Already stricken by a devastating drought, tens of thousands of people are fleeing violence and persecution, seeking safety among communities that are usually hospitable, but now have nothing left to share. Repeated violations of international humanitarian law have been reported in the newly controlled rebel areas, including the systematic looting of hospitals where patients are left without treatment or care. Women and girls have also been targeted, rebel fighters exerting their new-found power and taking advantage of the lack of command and control by raping women and girls in the three main cities of Northern Mali: Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

So, as we talk about resilience, let's not forget to focus our limited attention on the Sahel drought and the needless number of children at risk of starvation, and on Mali, where innocent civilians are fleeing conflict and persecution. Discussing resilience cannot become a handy excuse to not provide immediate relief to those most in need. And this is no time for post-colonial divvying up of Africa – the East for the United States and the United Kingdom, and the West for the European Union. Senior U.S. officials have repeatedly alluded to the fact that West Africa and the Sahel Region were under the purview of the Europeans, somehow giving the U.S. government a pass when it comes to living up to its usual commitment when there is a humanitarian crisis.

It is time to act now; resilience can only be built once this current crisis has been dealt with. Many members of InterAction are now in the region, providing immediate assistance, trying to access affected populations, and they need the public and donor governments to support them in any way possible. As of June 2012, the UN appeal of $1.6 billion for the Sahel was only 42 percent funded. Many NGOs do not have the means to initiate meaningful programs to assist the most vulnerable, and funding commensurate with the needs of the affected populations is necessary now, while it can still make a difference. The crisis in Mali also requires more diplomatic attention. Humanitarian access must be secured in the North through continued negotiations with the different rebel groups to assist populations caught between conflict and a ravaging drought. These populations can only become resilient if their immediate needs are also met.

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel. This piece originally appeared on The Huffington Post's Impact Blog on 6/18/12.