How Madagascar Emerged from the Shadow of Famine

by Anahito Boboeva and David Orr

As famine threatens to ravage a number of countries in Africa, Madagascar is slowly emerging from its worst food security crisis in years. Despite the losses caused by a severe cyclone in early March, the signs are that the Indian Ocean island is recovering. In 2016 the country was pushed to the brink by three years of devastating drought causing massive crop failure. Without humanitarian assistance, there is every possibility that it would have tipped over into famine.

Because of the drought, Nina and her family were forced to eat wild herbs and cactus fruit. Photo: WFP/Anahito Boboeva

The full impact of the drought was visited on Nina, a mother of five, half way through last year. First of all her crops — corn, cowpeas and cassava — withered on her plot in Ambovombe district. Then one of her two-year old twin boys died.

“During the worst time, we had hardly one meal a day and that was just some wild herbs and cactus fruit we gathered in the bush,” says Nina. “When my children asked me for food, I felt ashamed. I had brought them into the world but couldn’t even give them one proper meal.”

In recent months, Nina and her family have been receiving assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) — a monthly supply of cereal, pulses and fortified vegetable oil. In fact, she and others in her village of Halomoro have only been receiving half the intended ration due to funding shortages. Nonetheless, for thousands of vulnerable smallholder farmers like Nina, this life-saving support has made all the difference. And, with any luck, it will keep them going until the next harvest in April/May.

In early 2017, WFP assisted 650,000 drought-affected people with food distribution, cash transfers and nutrition support. Photo: WFP/David Orr

Some 850,000 people — more than half the population of the south of the island — were estimated to be in the ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ phases of food insecurity, according to Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) findings released in October 2016. These were — and, at least in part, still are — people with little or nothing to eat and no guaranteed access to food. In other words, people living on the very edge of survival.

The prediction last October was that the situation could deteriorate during the early months of this year if humanitarian assistance were not scaled up. What this meant, in effect, was that many of the 850,000 most food-insecure people could easily slip into the highest category, known as IPC 5, which means a famine.

Prompt humanitarian response prevented hundreds of thousands of people from slipping into famine. Photo: WFP/Jonathan Dumont

That this did not happen can be credited to the humanitarian response launched last year in the face of considerable challenges, including a widely dispersed population, poor or non-existent roads and lack of transporters. Within weeks of the IPC report being issued, WFP had scaled up to reach more than 600,000 of the most food-insecure people in the south — through a range of activities including food and cash assistance as well as nutrition support — to prevent and treat the high levels of malnutrition among young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. This number had reached more than 650,000 people by early this year.

In addition, around 220,000 schoolchildren are being supported through daily fortified hot meals in the southern areas. Both nutrition and school feeding activities are being conducted and coordinated in partnership with UNICEF, the children’s agency.

Nutritious hot meals provided by WFP help keep 220,000 children in southern Madagascar healthy. Photo:WFP/David Orr

This intervention was made possible by contributions from a range of donors including, the United States, Madagascar (through its National Office of Nutrition), France, Switzerland, the African Bank for Development, Finland, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Norway, Australia, Russia, the Republic of Korea, Monaco and Andorra, and multilateral funding.* By the end of February, WFP had mobilized US$ 53 million out of the US$ 112 million sought to cover operations until the end of June.

Key to the response has been a joint initiative with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, which is distributing seeds and cassava cuttings to more than 50,000 drought-hit households being assisted by WFP with complementary food rations. The distributions mean hungry households are more likely to plant than consume seeds —which will help assure their food security and livelihoods in the months ahead.

The experience in southern Madagascar shows that famines can be averted through timely humanitarian support. Photo:WFP/Jonathan Dumont

It is too early to say that Madagascar is out of trouble for this year — already the first cyclone of the season has battered the north-east of the island, leaving dozens dead and tens of thousands displaced. In the south, even if the rains persist and there is a good harvest, it will take the poorest, most vulnerable people a long time to recover from the drought that has been one of the most extreme in living memory. What is certain, however, is that the suffering of the south would have been many times worse, had it not been for the generosity of donors which allowed a timely humanitarian response.

* * The World Food Programme’s top contributors for multilateral funds in 2016 were: Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Australia, Germany, Canada, Italy, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium, Private Donors, New Zealand, USA and Luxembourg.

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