Mounting Hunger in the Sahel: The Unintended Impact of COVID-19 Prevention

As COVID-19 spreads across Africa’s Sahel region, it is multiplying the threats to the region’s most vulnerable populations. Droughts, resource scarcity, and violent conflict have wreaked havoc on communities for years. Now, as the Sahelian governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger scramble to implement measures to contain the virus, some policies are inadvertently endangering the food security of millions. For so many who already struggled to access food or even survive before the pandemic, the impact of the coronavirus has amplified resource scarcity and humanitarian need.

Measures such as community lockdowns and border restrictions may be effective in containing the virus. However, they have also brought economies to a standstill, disrupted food supply chains, and challenged humanitarian organizations to find new ways of reaching populations in need. The restrictions are impacting communities that already relied on external assistance to survive. However, they are also leaving more people in need of humanitarian aid, including many who may be forced to leave their homes in search of food or other opportunities.

Adding a Pandemic to a Worsening Crisis

For years, armed groups have destabilized Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. The result has been devastating for civilian populations in all three countries. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) reported that about a third of the region’s 61 million people had been affected by the turmoil, and the International Organization on Migration (IOM) estimated that, as of mid-May 2020, 1.2 million people were displaced across the Central Sahel. However, the real numbers are likely higher as the security situation in many areas precludes authorities from conducting definitive assessments.

The pandemic is compounding these already worsening humanitarian needs. It is testing fragile communities that suffer from weak governance, poor infrastructure, resource scarcity, and insufficient humanitarian funding in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. All three countries have weak and chronically underfunded public health systems. This severely limits their capacity to monitor, contain, or mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

So far, the spread of the virus has been limited. As of June 4, 2020, there were 885 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Burkina Faso; 1,461 in Mali; and 961 in Niger. However, the unintended effects of lockdowns and movement restrictions are having a broader—and perhaps more significant—impact on the wellbeing of local populations. Restrictions on individuals’ freedom of movement and the slowed transportation of goods have already begun to negatively impact the four dimensions of food security and nutrition: the availability of food, individuals’ economic and physical ability to access food, utilization of food to reach a state of nutritional health, and stability of food sources.

Pre-existing Food Insecurity

The Sahel region’s arid climate, widespread poverty, and high population growth rate already hinder residents’ access to food. Even in years with high levels of rainfall and agricultural production, Sahelians are extremely prone to food insecurity. Ongoing conflict and recent climate shocks, such as drought and flooding, have exacerbated this susceptibility.

Indeed, the United Nations World Food Program had sounded the alarm on food insecurity in the Sahel even before the global pandemic was declared. Earlier this year, WFP warned that 3.9 million people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger were food insecure.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic adds another aggravating factor. Border closures and social distancing decrees that governments imposed to prevent the spread of the virus have forced cuts to both imports and domestic production, reducing food availability. Meanwhile, violence continues to flare, forcing more people to abandon their homes. As the lean season (June to September) begins, concern is rising in all three countries that local populations will struggle to even acquire limited quantities of the most basic food.

In May 2020, WFP reported that the total number of food insecure people in the Sahel had risen to 4.8 million because of the pandemic and efforts to control and mitigate its spread. Experts now warn that as the health crisis continues, these estimates could double or even triple. Nearly 2.5 million children under the age of five are already in a state of acute malnutrition in the Sahel.

Impact of COVID-19 Preventative Measures


In areas of all three countries where the government is enforcing lockdowns, civilians are unable to go to work. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, most of the population works in the informal economy. Their low wages and limited savings mean that they rely on their livelihoods for day-to-day survival. In the Sahel, 25 million people work in the agropastoral industry. These restrictions are having catastrophic effects on their livelihoods and food security as well as those of their communities. Restrictions on movement are cutting farmers off their lands and stopping them from delivering foodstuffs, ultimately cutting them from their main source of income and sustenance. Nearly half of the region’s pastoralists can no longer travel with their livestock to graze or access water sources. Humanitarian aid workers told Refugees International that herders not only need food assistance for themselves and their families, but they also need animal feed for their livestock. Agriculturists are unable to reach their fields, decreasing their personal access to food, as well as the wider availability of food for purchase for others. 


Regular and sufficient access to food has become nearly impossible for many Sahelians. In many areas, governments have ordered many markets to close to reduce possible transmission of the coronavirus because the markets are not in compliance with social distancing regulations. Representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Mali and Niger told Refugees International that the resulting decrease in supply has caused food prices to double. This has made food unaffordable for the many people who have lost their source of income because they cannot work during the lockdown. Moreover, in most communities in the Sahel, individuals rely on being able to make daily trips to the market because they cannot buy in large quantities. Many cannot afford to do so because they earn only subsistence wages or are unlikely to have refrigerators to store perishable goods.

Aid groups often use cash transfers to complement—or substitute for—the meager incomes many Sahelians typically earn. However, the closure of many markets and disruptions to the food supply have made it more difficult for beneficiaries to use that cash to buy even basic food. That decreased spending has, in turn, stifled the positive ripple effects that cash distributions usually have in local economies to promote growth and employment. Moreover, Sahelians also have less access to in-kind distributions of food aid, as social distancing guidelines limit the number of people that humanitarian organizations can reach through such distributions. 

Supply Chains

Finally, border restrictions are also reducing food availability. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have closed most of their borders, suspended international flights, and restricted domestic travel. The transportation of goods is supposed to be exempt from travel restrictions. In April 2020, the African Union (AU) published the Declaration on Food Security and Nutrition During the Covid-19 Pandemic drafted by African ministers for agriculture. In this declaration, member states committed to work “with food and agriculture system traders and transporters, and officials in other sectors and local governments to resolve any bottlenecks affecting the safe movement, transport and marketing of essential people, goods and services in the system.”

However, NGO representatives working in these three countries told Refugees International of numerous reports that authorities continued to force trucks transporting food to wait for days at the border—causing food to spoil—or were turning them around. The resulting breakdown in supply chains means that, in markets that do remain open, sellers are unable to fill their stalls with food and goods. Faced with these restrictions, traders may be increasingly inclined to turn to smuggling. For decades, armed groups across the Sahel have profited immensely from smuggling. These groups thus stand to profit more, and in turn be strengthened, during the pandemic.

Adapting Humanitarian Efforts

As people in the Sahel are deprived of their livelihoods, thousands are joining the ranks of millions who already depended on humanitarian assistance prior to the pandemic. But the national shutdowns have slowed down the delivery of humanitarian aid. With no clear end in sight for the pandemic, governments, the United Nations, and aid groups will need to rethink their strategies for meeting the humanitarian needs of communities across the region.  

UN agencies are issuing revised guidelines for safe interventions, and aid groups told Refugees International that they are adapting accordingly. For example, organizations have been teaming up to jointly distribute assistance with less staff, limiting the number of people receiving goods at the same time, spreading distribution points farther apart, and carrying out their work over more days. Although helpful in safeguarding public health, these adaptive measures take more time and money.

National governments and humanitarian groups must do more to work around the logistical obstacles posed by border closures and movement restrictions. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger’s governments must guarantee that transports carrying food are not blocked or slowed down and, as members of the AU, fulfill their commitments to resolve “any bottlenecks” that disrupt the food supply chain. Additionally, Sahelian states must coordinate with each other and with aid groups to establish humanitarian corridors across their borders and within their countries to increase and accelerate food provision. There are already reports of a corridor having been negotiated in Niger to allow the flow of goods from the capital city Niamey to rural regions. The governments of Burkina Faso and Mali should use this same model where possible.

Another key solution to overcome transportation limitations is to increase funding for the UN’s WFP operations in the Sahel. The agency plays several critical roles. First, WFP is the lead UN agency tackling food security in the region. Second, it coordinates humanitarian logistics and the supply chain. Finally, its Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) plays a crucial role in overcoming access limitations by airlifting vital cargo in crises worldwide.

In late March 2020, David Beasley, the executive director of WFP, appealed to donors for the $1.9 billion needed for a three-month response to COVID-19 and its ripple effects on food security. This call for support was quickly heeded by the United States, Germany, the European Commission, Canada, and Switzerland. However, $811 million is still urgently needed and more will be necessary once the three-month funding runs dry. Of all humanitarian crises worldwide, WFP’s responses in Burkina Faso and Niger are facing the second and third highest funding shortfalls in the world.

Even prior to the pandemic, these countries received little international funding to address their tremendous needs. For 2020, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plans for all three countries remain severely underfunded—Burkina Faso’s appeal is only 22 percent funded, Mali’s is 26 percent funded, and Niger’s is merely 16 percent funded. On the global scale, the UN’s COVID-19 Humanitarian Response Plan has only received 18 percent of its $6.7 billion target. These funding gaps leave organizations unable to respond to pre-existing needs and render it nearly impossible to implement more costly pandemic-sensitive programming. An NGO staffer in Mali explained to Refugees International by phone that organizations “know what to do, but the resources just aren’t there to implement such a shift.” Donors must anticipate that Sahelians will feel the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak for years to come. They must therefore prioritize filling these pressing funding gaps and provide flexible long-term funding.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In these three conflict-ravaged countries, efforts to combat COVID-19 have already taken a large toll on economic activities, food security, and aid delivery. Access to food for populations in the Sahel was precarious prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus. These communities must now grapple with threats to their consistent and sufficient access to food against the backdrop of a worsening security context and deadly virus. The outlook is grim unless access and resources are provided to allow aid groups to stay on the frontlines and deliver aid that mitigates these consequences.

The Governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger must:

  • Uphold the African Union’s April 2020 Declaration on Food Security and Nutrition During the Covid-19 Pandemic by fulfilling their commitment to address obstacles that disrupt the replenishment of food supply.
  • Guarantee freedom of movement for transports carrying food and humanitarian supplies.
  • Coordinate to allow food and essential goods to travel through humanitarian corridors across international borders and within their countries.

UN Agencies and humanitarian organizations must:

  • Increase the use of multi-sector joint deliveries of humanitarian goods among UN agencies and other relief groups when possible, to reduce the number of individuals involved and the number of such deliveries, and thereby minimize the risks of COVID-19 exposure to aid recipients and humanitarian personnel.
  • Continue to expand networks of in-kind distribution points to enable people to receive necessary goods in a timely fashion while still adhering to social distancing protocols.

Donor governments and institutions must:

  • Provide flexible long-term funding that takes into account that the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts will be long-lasting in the Sahel.
  • Provide additional funding to WFP for both food security and nutrition interventions as well as its logistical and UNHAS work.
  • Increase financial support for the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19.

PHOTO CAPTION: A man in a camp for internally displaced people in Bamako, Mali (Photo by MICHELE CATTANI / AFP).