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Life On The Brink Of Hunger in Mauritania

The land is deceptively green in the southern part of Mauritania. Recent rains may have allowed grass to grow and livestock to graze, but the region is still undergoing its “lean season” and, with meager harvests still some months away, the local populations of the southern regions of Brakna, Gorgol, Assaba, Tagant, and Guidimaka are struggling to see themselves through to harvest. 

Cash assistance from WFP allowed Fatamatou, 32, and her family to keep their goats. They are now better equipped to face this year's lean season. WFP/Michael Sadleir

The land is deceptively green in the southern part of Mauritania. Recent rains may have allowed grass to grow and livestock to graze, but the region is still undergoing its “lean season” and, with meager harvests still some months away, the local populations of the southern regions of Brakna, Gorgol, Assaba, Tagant, and Guidimaka are struggling to see themselves through to harvest. 

Villagers in this part of Mauritania already face significant challenges, living in remote villages with limited access to water, arable land, firewood, or electricity. At this time of year, when levels of food insecurity in these regions rise to a peak, their hardships increase; food prices are high, stocks are depleted, and local people are frequently being forced to sell or slaughter their livestock to meet their nutritional needs, which will further impair their capacity to endure the next lean season. The cyclic nature of the droughts and food shortages deals successive blows to this vulnerable population, which is still reeling from the severe drought of 2011 and finds itself increasingly incapable of withstanding the recurring shocks to its harvests and livestock.

In order to foster the resilience of the villagers in the face of these repeated challenges, the World Food Programme is supporting the most vulnerable populations through its cash assistance activities, which it implements in close cooperation with the government, local NGOs, and the target population itself. The most important effect is immediate, in mitigating the shocks of drought and insufficient harvests by allowing families to afford food and preserve their livestock; WFP backs this up by stocking village food reserves to ensure access to food at subsidized rates when prices are high. A longer-term effect is in encouraging villagers to stay near to their homes to maximize the chances of success of parallel agricultural projects in building a sustainable existence for them. 

Field visits indicate that this primary function of acting as a buffer against environmental shocks is very effective. Fatamatou, 32, is a former beneficiary who credits the cash assistance she received last year for her ability to preserve her family’s most valuable assets. “We would have had to sell some of our goats to buy food, and I would have been in an even worse situation this year,” she explained, highlighting the cumulative and unsustainable coping mechanisms to which vulnerable people are forced to resort.

An additional and essential benefit stems from the conditional nature of the cash assistance. Before receiving any cash, beneficiaries are required to take part in training sessions in such subjects as family nutrition and hand washing, which can play a crucial role in reducing malnutrition, illness, and their associated effects on the ability of children to thrive.

Throughout the process, WFP works closely with local NGOs, who play an important role in the implementation and monitoring of the activities. Their constant presence in the areas of operation and their deep knowledge of the field makes them a strong asset to WFP in the implementation and follow-up of the assistance to vulnerable populations. Committees of elders in the most vulnerable villages are also at the heart of the process, identifying the most disadvantaged among them under the guidance of WFP staff – a process that guarantees transparency, gives villages a sense of control over the challenges they are facing, and creates a strong and trusting relationship between local communities and WFP. 

This form of assistance has proved fast and efficient to implement, and has yielded real results in assisting the most vulnerable to weather the hardships of the recurring cycle of hunger. It has also proved an effective way to transmit important information on good nutrition and sanitary practices through the required training associated with the assistance.