United Nations World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. Photo by: Alessandra Benedetti / FAO

Mali’s future transition from aid to development is still a long road ahead and food security cannot be overlooked, according to U.N. World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin.

Cousin told Devex that you cannot build development without ensuring that you have food security, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable people in Mali, and this should be a top priority for donors as well as security and preventing terrorism.

She sees the country’s transition from aid to development like a “very long road,” but the local population is building resilience and willing to do its part, and has learned that planning early to gain access can truly make the difference when delivering aid to such difficult areas in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Cousin has high hopes for Mali, but it is crucial to maintain the donor momentum for the country to be in the future self-sufficient and able to feed its own people.

Here are some highlights from our conversation with the WFP chief this week at the donor conference for Mali in Brussels:

What is the World Food Program’s position on Mali and the key message to donors at today’s donor conference?

My one message would be that food security in Mali is security for Mali. You cannot build development without ensuring that you have food security, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable people in Mali. And that requires donor support in the first instance.

And in terms of food security itself, what is the most pressing issue?

The most pressing issue for the WFP is our ability to continue to support those who have been displaced by the conflict in Northern Mali — we have 300,000 people who are in Southern Mali because of the violence in Northern Mali and the ongoing conflict there, and we have 175,000 people who today are still in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. It’s a widespread threat. In addition to the impact that the refugees have on the host populations in Southern Mali and in the surrounding countries where you are still overcoming the challenges of last year’s failed harvest, you have populations that are continually burdened and stressed by their hosting of the refugee population from Mali. That includes hospitals and schools and water systems that are already challenged.

So is this a case of the supply-demand issue and logistics issues — getting the food to where it’s most needed — compounded by issues such as crop failures?

Like most of the issues we address, it’s complicated and it’s multi-faceted and there’s always no one simple solution. In reality, in 2012, we began addressing the challenges in the Sahel after the 2011 failure of the rains, the poor harvest — there was a recognition that if we did not address the issues of food security, we would see a famine in the Sahel. The donor community came together quickly to address those issues and began not just to feed people, but to build the resilience of that population. But that response was complicated then by the conflict in Northern Mali, which resulted in a refugee crisis. That crisis then impacted those same populations that we were serving to support and respond to for the failed harvest. Then with the ongoing conflict you have the issues of access — the roads were unsafe, so you can’t then drive into Gao, into Timbuktu, Kidal, so you were unable to reach those populations.

And how do you see the transition from aid provision to development assistance?

It’s a very long road. And what’s interesting is that we in the community use these terms humanitarian assistance transfer to development assistance — the reality of it is to a person that requires food assistance, they don’t know the line [between the two]. What they want to ensure is that we are helping them and assisting them in ultimately feeding their own children. Having visited all the countries in the Sahel at this point, what I recognize is that these are proud people. They want to feed their own children — so working with them to provide cash for work programs, food for work programs, were part of our humanitarian response to ensure that we were building resilience that will ultimately allow for the development of this population. You cannot separate what we did today, versus what we’re doing tomorrow.

And in terms of your operational work, obviously there’s a range of actors involved. But what are the biggest issues or trends for development implementers, particularly in these difficult, remote, often arid conditions?

Providing the programs that support the sustainability of the populations. Let me give you an example: In Niger, we worked with women to provide them with food for work, where we were meeting their immediate food assistance needs, but they were also — with the government of Niger — building water catchment basins. And so what happened was at the end of the harvest season, as resources were beginning to be depleted, they were able to use that water during several months of the vegetable growing season to grow vegetable gardens and sell that harvest. So the market has given them additional resources to now support the feeding and nutrition needs of their families during what would otherwise be a lean season. But that is complicated by the fact that you now have high prices in all of the Sahel affecting the access to food by that same population.

What lessons have been learned from past crises in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel that are being put into practice in Mali today?

One of the biggest lessons is access — and access early. It’s recognising that when the rains fail that it’s our responsibility to begin the planning early, with donors supporting us so that we can position the appropriate assistance to meet the needs of those we serve in a timely manner. That’s what changed between Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel. It’s also a twin-track approach. It’s ensuring that the assistance that we’re providing in the early response also supports the building of resilience of the population and the handover to a development response. And so you can’t divide the issue between filling a stomach today and supporting a family to feed itself tomorrow. We have the opportunity to support that resilience building throughout the entire response. And so those are two of the primary lessons we’ve learned that we’re now implementing in our response in the Sahel.

So you’re committed to supporting the government’s plans, but should there be any conditionality attached to aid provision?

We believe that we should have the assistance that is required to meet the needs of the people that we need to serve. We work with governments where those governments have plans, in order to ensure that we can ultimately support the needs of the hungry poor. The challenge that we have is to ensure that we have sustained donor support — that the donors who were with us last year when there was an impending crisis recognise this opportunity during this period when Mali is trying to help itself to truly assist this country to move forward, become self sufficient and help the people feed their own children in the future.

And so as we strive for a brighter future for Mali, what can NGOs and development implementers do to ensure that food security and nutrition gets a place at the top table of policy priorities?

First of all, we as a community must get out of our silos to work together and partner together — to demonstrate to donors that we are not so interested in our individual successes, but rather the opportunities to support those we serve. And that way we drive value for money and more efficiency and effectiveness. That will ensure that donors respond to our request for financial support to assist in addressing the food security and chronic malnutrition needs of those we serve.

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    Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.