Chief of Plan Canada aid group warns of impending famine in West Africa’s Sahel region

We've all been so focused on the volatile situation in the Middle East, and now Libya and Tunisia, that we're at risk of missing a chance to help prevent a looming humanitarian crisis in West Africa's Sahel region, says the head of a major Canadian aid organization.

The next few weeks could be critical for people in Burkina Faso and neighbouring Niger, where food shortages have been exacerbated by the arrival of more than 350,000 refugees from Mali, driven by violence in the wake of a military coup.

If the upcoming harvest fails for any reason or more refugees flood in, the potential exists for the kind of famines like those seen in Ethiopia and other parts of eastern Africa in the mid-1980s, says Rosemary McCarney, president and chief executive officer of Plan Canada.

Drought and successive bad harvests have already caused a spike in food prices, to the point that people in Burkina Faso are paying up to 80 per cent of their income for food, said McCarney, who just returned from a trip to the region with Federal Minister of International Co-Operation Julian Fantino.

"But then layered on that is this refugee crisis because of the conflict in Mali," McCarney said in an interview with Yahoo! Canada News.

Aid groups and countries such as Canada, which contributed $43 million to the Sahel crisis last February, have moved quickly to organize relief for Malian refugees filling camps in neighbouring countries.

"We're keeping a lid on things but it can easily slide into catastrophe if things intensify in Mali," said McCarney. "We expect that to happen."

The Associated Press reported Friday that West African states are preparing for a military intervention to take back the area of northern Mali occupied by Islamist rebels.

[Related: Northern Mali situation 'alarming,' Red Cross says]

A harvest is expected soon but could be affected by factors ranging from lack of rain to flooding in Niger and the ever-present threat of locusts, she said.

"You want to be hopeful but there's a whole lot of things that can go very wrong in the next few weeks that could actually cause this to go from crisis to catastrophe," McCarney said to Yahoo! News Canada.

"The granaries are empty, absolutely empty. Household incomes are completely depleted and food prices have doubled in Burkina Faso in one year alone."

Aid groups estimate there are up to 18 million people at risk of famine in the region, including two million children for whom malnutrition can cause permanent damage.

"We can't get any attention because, as you say, between the Olympics and Syria and the Middle East stuff going on, Africa gets crowded out," McCarney said. "There's been very little media attention and therefore public attention on the Sahel crisis."

Aid groups want to forestall the kinds of images seen regularly out of the Horn of Africa of starving babies with bloated bellies. That's what it took for the world to wake up to the famine in Ethiopia, which spurred rocker Bob Geldof to set up Band Aid and help organize the massive Live Aid concert in 1985 that raised more than US$280 million for famine relief.

Plan Canada, part of the Humanitarian Coalition working in the Sahel, is ramping up fund-raising efforts after Ottawa announced in August it would match Canadians' donations dollar for dollar until the end of September. So far about $1.6 million has been raised.

Among other things, Plan Canada is providing support for about 48,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, as well as drilling water wells, and building latrines and shower facilities at three camps. It's also providing preschool and primary school classes for almost 1,000 refugee children and offering children psycho-social support, including safe places to play.

MoneySense, the Canadian personal finances web site, gives Plan Canada a B+ efficiency rating in its ranking of 100 charities for the utilization of its donations, low among Canadian international aid and development groups. Just over 78 per cent of its money is spent on its programs.

McCarney said agencies like Plan typically try to keep overhead and administration costs in the 20 to 25 per cent range and Plan has managed maintain it at about 21 per cent for the last six years.

"That's absolutely best in class," she said. "Could we bring those expense ratios down? We absolutely can but in those six years we've also moved from having $15 million in revenue to $115 million in revenue."

Plan tries to strike a balance between keeping costs to levels acceptable to its donors while not impairing its ability to mount fundraising campaigns.

One cost saving has been to dispense with printed annual reports, she said. In the name of transparency, financial reports are posted on its website.