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Oslo Conference calls on donors to fight famine, starvation

A severely malnourished boy has his arm measured at a health clinic in a refugee camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria on 17 January, 2017. TRF-Kieran Guilbert

An international donor conference in Oslo, Norway aiming to raise a chunk of the 1.4 billion euros the United Nations says it needs to address deepening food insecurity in the region this year. Earlier this week the United Nations said 1.4 million children were in danger of dying because of famines in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

More than seven million people risk starvation in Nigeria's insurgency-hit northeastern region and around Lake Chad, according to the UN.

There is little doubt over the fact that the Boko Haram insurgency is one of the main factors behind the crisis around the Lake Chad.

Yan St Pierre is a counter-terrorism adviser who works for a group called Modern Security in Berlin. He says that because of the Boko Haram militants, people have been forced out of their homes into towns or camps for refugees and cannot farm or fish, which increases pressure in the towns.

"Historically, it's proven that tossing money isn't that effective," St Pierre told RFI. "Real, practical solutions need to be found before this."

St Pierre explains that the Nigerian government, first and foremost, needs to recognise that their battle against Boko Haram will still last, will last a long time, and to stop pretending that everything is alright and that the areas have been secured.

"This is big problem. So the first bigger step is to recognise that there is a problem, that it is still there, that it is growing, and once that recognition is there, then people can say 'well, okay, how can we find a solution'. But as long as people are being ostriches and putting their heads under the sand, it is going to be difficult and just tossing money around, with all the graft and corruption in that region, it just makes things more complicated."

Some experts on the ground, however, say things have already started improving.

Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, says people in the Lake Chad region feel safer this planting season, for example, compared to last year. And he says some of them are even ready to go fishing again on the lake, which was considered way too dangerous only months ago.

Lanzer is hopeful the situation can improve even more since, he says, Boko Haram are on the backfoot.

"When we look at the areas where people can move more freely this year, then, those have expanded, and that's very good news, and we want to help people take advantage of that so that they can tend to their livestock, so that they can sow seeds in the fields to which they do have access."

Lanzer says despite the good news he sees, issues remain.

"Security is still a challenge, in particular to aid agencies, and the people of the region, but if we were to compare today with a year ago, things have improved in regards to stability, so that's good. And that's also enabled us to better understand how grave the situation is and how badly people need help but it's also given us this real sense of 'yes we can' attitude of the communities themselves across the Lake Chad region."

Response versus preparedness 

According to experts, steps need to be taken at the Oslo summit to change how donors approach crises like the one they face.

Challiss McDonough, the Senior Regional Communications Officer East Africa for the World Food Programme, says humanitarian workers have been warning for years about famine in these areas, and that preparedness is key.

"We have been warning about the fragility of the recovery in Somalia from the famine of six years ago. We have been warning about the danger the conflict in South Sudan could spiral down into famine, that's literally been happening for the last two years and a half," she told RFI.

"We've managed to hold back crises at bay thus far with a powerful humanitarian response."

She says it is possible to meet those humanitarian needs with a lot of dedication and hard work and resources from the international community.

"But fundamentally, the absence of peace and the absence of stability makes all of that humanitarian effort essentially just a bandaid on a problem that requires a much larger solution and a political solution, because without that peace and stability, then, all of the humanitarian assistance in the world isn't going to be able to address the causes of why people are going hungry."

In South Sudan for example, Oxfam's main concern is the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) reading.

"The readings that came out earlier this week are shocking," Dorothy Sang, Humanitarian Manager based in Juba, told RFI. "Not only because famine has now been declared but also the high rates of areas in the country nearing on famine."

Sang says that crisis in South Sudan is man-made and stems from the lack of access that goes hand-in-hand with complex emergencies.

Echoing this, McDonough says the main thing is to stop vicious circles. What happens, she says, is people's lives are disrupted by conflict and at the same time that conflict affects the ability of aid agencies to help them.

"Fundamentally, we've got humanitarian needs that are rising so quickly because of all these different crises, in our very unstable world right now, that the needs globally are just vastly outstripping the resources that are available to meet them. The world has to has to have a very serious conversation about how to change the way we deal with those crises, and find some more sustainable solution for meeting those humanitarian needs and also engage on the political side. I'm very encourage that this conversation is happening in Oslo, but I think it's the beginning of a process, and we can't give up on it after this."

And one might ask if international donors are not a little late to the rescue here. It is for some people, these experts say, but there are still an awful lot of lives they say that can be saved.

McDonough says the world has the resources to move very fast, in order to launch into the work and committment that's needed to stabilise the crisis.