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Emergency food aid is just the start

Mali, October 11, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jihane Nami/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Food vouchers allow these women to buy the food they need most from the local market. The monthly distributions will go through November. Photo: Jihane Nami/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jihane Nami/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Most families chose to buy desperately needed staples like oil and rice. Many communities worked together to get the month's supplies back to their villages, some as far as two-and-a-half hours from the nearest market. Photo: Jihane Nami/Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps teams are now providing desperately needed assistance in Mali to those who are struggling to find enough to eat. The hunger crisis that stretches across the Sahel is particularly severe for the nearly 400,000 people who have been displaced within Mali this year.

They set out to find food, but many were also forced to flee their homes by political unrest and fighting. Without the land and animals they left behind, these families are especially vulnerable to one of the worst food shortage in decades. They cannot plant new crops or sell livestock to buy food in the market.

Communities that have not been displaced are also living on the edge as already strained resources must now support the influx of displaced populations. Fighting earlier this year disrupted trade routes and caused food prices to soar, while families found it difficult to access enough seeds to plant in time for the fall harvest.

Vouchers allow families to buy food

Our work in Mali began with emergency distribution of monthly vouchers that allow families to buy food on the local market. This system gives families the freedom to decide what they need most and also injects new funds into the local economy.

More than 2,300 households have received vouchers in eight communities in northern Mali, selected by local leaders based on their need. Most purchased desperately needed staples like oil and rice that would last them the entire month. Families will receive additional monthly vouchers through November, which are more secure than cash in an area where the banking system has come to a halt.

Along with this immediate assistance to get through the lean season, we are educating families about better nutrition and hygiene to improve health beyond this crisis.

Now that rain has returned to the Sahel and the growing season has begun, the November harvest looks mostly promising. Even so, a plentiful harvest will not pull vulnerable households out of poverty so quickly. Even if they had the land and seeds to plant — which many did not — they will still have to sell the yields at below market prices to pay off debts and reconstitute lost assets.

Protecting land and animals for the future

We worked quickly to begin emergency response work in Mali. But it is crucial to continue work that helps families rebuild their assets and develop resilience to future food shortages like this. So we are targeting longterm efforts to increase access to veterinary care, educate famers about new ways to manage the health and productivity of their herds, empower communities to manage water and improve land use, and strengthen early warning systems that monitor climate and agricultural data at a village level.

SEE PHOTOS OF SIMILAR WORK IN NIGER: Harvesting hope in the Sahel

Our new work crosses borders between Mali and Niger, just as these pastoralists range for suitable grazing land. Where agriculture and pastoralism are the sustaining ways of life, livestock represent a source of food (through milk production), cash, savings and insurance. But earlier this year, herds were malnourished or dying, if they were not sold for far below their original value. Mercy Corps will help families hold on to their animals and keep them healthy so they will be able to more quickly recover this time — and stay secure in the future.

We're working toward solutions that prevent a crisis like this from happening again.