Before completely turning my back on 2012, I am reflecting on Oxfam’s work in the Sahel over the last year. After a season of poor or erratic rains across the region in 2011, Oxfam and many other humanitarian groups feared that another bad harvest in 2012 would push millions into starvation. I visited farmers in far eastern Senegal in April of 2012 to see what they recommended: They wanted seeds so they could plant, and food so they could work. They also said they needed rain, never guaranteed in the Sahel.
Oxfam responded to the crisis in seven countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, The Gambia, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. We assisted more than 1 million people with a variety of programs tailored to the specific location: We helped people fleeing violence and instability in Mali get the food and clean water they needed to survive. Oxfam repaired wells, and provided fodder for animals, and paid people to work on erosion control and soil improvement projects. We distributed soap so people could keep clean, and the means to treat water, to reduce vulnerability to waterborne diseases. We distributed food in places where none was available, and money to buy it where it was.
Thankfully, there was decent rain across the region in 2012. Harvests were up; many farmers with the seeds, tools, traction, fertilizer, labor, and other key inputs were able to grow something. However many farmers had to sell what they grew to pay back debts. Others could not grow much, if anything, for the simple reason that they are impoverished. When I went back to the same area in October, one farmer told me he could not farm an area large enough to feed his family. “I don’t have any equipment,” he said. “I don’t own a plow, any machines for processing groundnuts or rice, or a horse. I can only carry heavy loads on my head. It’s not easy. “