Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th February, 2013
I had a distinct sense of déja vu all over again at Europe House in Westminster this evening at the screening of a short documentary film “The Human Chain” (directed by Riccardo Russo). The film was co-produced by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the European Commission, to highlight their joint response to the 2012 drought and consequent hunger in the region that forms the southern belt to the Sahara. The déja vu was because I was in the Sahel in 1979, researching a report for the World Council of Churches (WCC) on The Use and Abuse of Food Aid and more than 30 years on this all seemed achingly familiar. I kept in touch with region, being the founder-Secretary of a British NGO SOS Sahel, and then later (1991-2000) being Mauritania’s Honorary Consul to the Court of St. James’s. The Sahel is still subject to cyclical drought and famine, despite worthy efforts to stop soil erosion through tree-planting and the like. Climate change has certainly not helped. Greg Barrow of the WFP (a former BBC East Africa correspondent) moderated the debate after the film screening this evening, with a panel made up of current BBC correspondent Mark Doyle (hot foot from the mayhem in Mali), Maya Mailer from Oxfam and the new Head of the European Commission’s representation in London, Jackie Minor. There were a number of old Africa hands in the audience who made contributions, including a radical blast froma colleague of my Food Aid past Benny Denbitzer, who was fairly hostile to the film. I spoke sharing his depression, not because because the film is bad — on the contrary, it is very good, using some really well-chosen and sympathetically portrayed vox populi. I was depressed because so little has changed and I don’t see how the Sahel can escape from the spiral of deprivation unless there is a holistic approach to the region’s challenges by both the region’s governments and the European Union (and its constituent Member States), as well as international organizations such as WFP and aid agencies, but extending further than mere aid and even conventional development. Europe does have to take a certain responsibility for the Sahel, for both historical and geographical reasons, and that needs to be embraced in a spirit of equal partnership with the countries and people concerned. All this needs to go far beyond the security and anti-terrorism partnership proclaimed by David Cameron or Francois Hollande. Otherwise the Sahel will be condemned to suffer for eternity.