(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Good early warning, slow response

Nomadic people leaving with their food aid in Diffa region, Niger
Catherine-Lune Grayson/IRIN

Mali’s crisis early warning system is lauded in the sub-region for its accuracy and efficiency but some say good, timely information warning of the impact of poor rains on grazing land and water availability this year, did not necessarily translate into a swift response by the government or international community.

In neighbouring Niger, Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda appealed to the international community for emergency aid to stem the food insecurity crisis in March 2010, but the government of Mali did not.

An NGO representative who preferred anonymity told IRIN: “The government of Mali was reluctant to recognize the crisis... On one side of the border the government declared a crisis, while on the other - just a few kilometres away - the government said nothing, despite there being the same vulnerable populations facing the same livelihood problems and suffering from the same lack of rainfall.”

The government's decision on how to handle the situation was based as much on politics as on information, the head of a different NGO told IRIN.

Mali's early warning system - Système d’Alerte Précoce, or SAP - was created in 1986 and involves setting up teams made up of experts from the livestock, water and forests, and agriculture ministries, elected officials and political party representatives in each county of Mali. These teams discuss rainfall levels, animal health, and water availability, writing up a report which they send to the regional authorities and national government, said SAP coordinator in the capital, Bamako, Mary Diallo.

SAP has also teamed up with NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) to set up software to take satellite photographs that identify different types of biomass, enabling people to see how much vegetation is growing in specific areas. “These pictures mean we can confirm or deny the information that we received from these technical teams,” Diallo told IRIN. Soon the pictures will also look at the presence of water to better enable agencies to predict pastoralist grazing routes.

ACF head in Mali David Kerespars told IRIN: “The early warning system has undeniably helped provide relevant information which has given us an idea of the vulnerabilities in Mali this year. This information has been used by the Food Security Commission to target and calibrate its response. “

Politics versus information

The SAP works because it is “technical, not political”, said Diallo. “We tell the government the truth and suggest what it needs to do to avoid famine. We don’t try to please the authorities, or our partners.”

Despite this, the government was slow to pick up on the information, and decided not to declare an emergency, said the aid representative. While the government launched a response to help populations in the north, “there was a lack of alarm about the message that was passed on to agencies and the international media, so donors, in turn, did not respond on a big scale.”

Because of this missing sense of urgency, UN agencies were also far more concerned with responding in Niger, than in Mali, said the aid worker. “They followed the government line.”

In Niger, after the coup d’état in February 2010, “everything dramatically changed,” in regard to the government’s openness about the extent of the crisis, an aid worker told IRIN. The previous administration had been reticent in publicizing the extent of the disaster - estimated to be over seven million facing food shortages - as had also been the case in 2005.

While early warning systems exist in Niger, they are not as advanced as those in Mali, said ACF. The organization is considering extending its satellite system to Niger.

The scale of the needs was - and is - far greater in Niger than in Mali where only 258,000 were estimated to be affected by food insecurity. But aid groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have told IRIN they would have liked to scale up aid projects in northern Mali, given the resources.

UN agencies did not comment. But at the height of the crisis, World Food Programme head Alice Martin-Dahirou told IRIN they had actively supported the government’s efforts, and had been proactive in bringing together all the relevant actors to discuss a plan of action.

Diallo said the government's response was based on the SAP findings. The government and donors distributed cereals, animal feed, and helped destock sick animals who were suffering because of the 2009 drought.

The 2010 harvest is expected to be good in most of the affected regions, following decent rains. A CILSS (inter-state committee to fight drought in the Sahel) annual crop assessment mission is currently assessing the prospects, and will soon publish its results.


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