On Tuesday, I was invited by Oxfam to look at one of their projects addressing the current food crisis in the wider region. A car took us from Ouagadougou, the capital, north to Kaya and from there to several surrounding villages.
The dry season has the country in its hot and dusty grip now. Temperatures are above 40°C every day and it hasn't rained for weeks. The ground is barren and doesn't look like it could feed anybody, not to speak of the thousands of people who live here dispersed over several villages and small towns.
And indeed, the last agricultural season brought serious shortfalls: officially, the national harvest has been 5% below consumption, but nobody knows if this figure is correct and shortfalls here in the North were greater anyway. One of the beneficiaries of the Oxfam project tells me later, that she only harvested three sacks of millet instead of the normal eight to nine, which she needs to feed her household of nine persons. One sack comes at five kg.
Oxfam reacted early and with money from ECHO started a Cash-for-Work program in the region: The villagers were shown how to enhance their fields with a simple trick; Many small holes dug into the earth would catch and hold more water once the rain comes, increasing the next harvest. Everybody applied the technique on his own field and was now paid for this work.
This creates a theoretical win-win situation. The villagers will have some money to buy food on the market until the next harvest arrives, which will be larger due to the increased productivity of the fields.
To maximise the effect, Oxfam wants the villagers to buy subsidized millet, which the government currently sells as part of its food crisis emergency program. This program has received lots of acclaim by the UN and other donors. Subsidized millet costs 11,000 Franc CFA (ca. 16.5 €)per sack, which is less than half the usual 25,000 FCFA price tag.
Anticipating this price, Oxfam paid the villagers 25,000 FCFA each, enough for two sacks of subsidized millet and some necessary condiments like cooking oil and sugar. Therefore, the consternation was great when the villagers told us that they wouldn't buy subsidized millet and instead buy the normal stuff at the considerable higher price.
The reason for this is of course not that the Burkinabè hate a bargain or are not aware that one sack of millet won't bring them over the lean period. But during the last delivery, the government provided only seven sacks of subsidized millet for the village in question, which has over 4,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows when the next delivery will happen, but it is already clear that there won't be nearly enough for everybody. And the people need the additional food now, so they have little choice.
Once the food runs out again, they will take out a loan to buy more. This way, between NGO relief programs, the government emergency aid and going into dept, there will probably be enough food for everybody to survive the hunger crisis in Burkina this year. But that doesn't mean that it won't have very negative effects on many people.
The debt will have to be paid back after the next harvest. If this again fails or only stays average, many people won't be able to fully pay off their loans and keep enough food to not hunger again next year. To safe money, kids will be taken out of school to work on the gold fields of the region instead. And not dying of hunger of course doesn't mean that one can't get ill or malnourished, which has a range of disastrous consequences of its own.
In conclusion, Burkina will be one of the least impacted countries of this year's hunger crisis. This is due to its geographical advantages, but also the early and relatively comprehensive reaction by the government and NGOs. Still, many people will be off worse after the crisis than they were before. Lets hope that they won't be forgotten as soon as the crisis is declared over.