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11 million people at hunger risk across Africa's arid Sahel belt seek $1 billion, U.N. says Syria diverting attention

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 7th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

With the focus of the most of the world's aid on Syria, the humanitarian crisis in the African nation of Sahel has been overlooked. Millions are facing starvation there, and yet the majority of international concern is on the plight of Syrian refugees, the United Nations says.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The United Nations appealed last week for more than $1 billion to help feed the 11 million people at risk across Africa's arid Sahel belt.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that the war in northern Mali, where a French-led military campaign destroyed an Islamist enclave, has worsened annual food shortages across the region. Currently, Some 175,000 Malian refugees are camped in neighboring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, placing strain on scant food supplies.

In addition, a further 353,000 people are displaced within Mali itself, having abandoned their homes and livelihoods.

The U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, Robert Piper says that donor governments had provided only $607 million from an estimated $1.72 billion needed to help people at risk of hunger and malnutrition across the region which runs east to west across Africa.

The European Union, the United States, Japan and Britain are the main contributors to the appeal - but these nations have been distracted by Syria, Piper says. The lack of funds is also partly a reflection of the financial crisis, which had reduced aid budgets in donor nations.

The United Nations says that the conflict in Syria has killed 100,000 people and driven 1.7 million more to seek sanctuary outside the country.

The amount of money already spent on Mali for non-humanitarian ends could also explain donor fatigue. The deployment of a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission from this month could cost some $700 million a year.

"Mali is overshadowing the rest of the region a little bit. I suspect in some capitals they feel that they are doing a lot for the Sahel already," Piper said.

The deteriorating situation in northern Mali, which has by far the worst nutritional statistics in the region, prompted the United Nations to increase the size of the appeal by $100 million from earlier this year.

To date, the United Nations has received less than a third of the $500 million in humanitarian donations it targeted for Mali, one of the poorest countries on earth.

Those at risk for starvation there this year is down from 18 million in 2012, when the nine-country Sahel region was struck by drought for the second time in three years, OCHA said. However, that 11.3 million people remain at risk from food insecurity in spite of good rains, reflecting the region's worsening underlying humanitarian situation.

In many markets across the region, food prices were 50 to 60 percent above their five-year average.

"The question is when are we going to start reversing the trend of ever-escalating humanitarian needs for the Sahel?" he said.

With Sahel's population growing at one of the fastest rates on earth, over-farming of agricultural land means that good weather is no longer sufficient to alleviate the problem.

Piper said that, with funding scarce, donor money was going to emergency food and refugee schemes, bypassing agricultural programs which could help provide a long-term solution.

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