VIDEO: 5 things to know about the Sahel food crisis

Yesterday, I got to use Google+ Hangout, a new technology that allows people to video chat each other, for social good. It was pretty awesome. The World Food Programme organized the Hangout and broadcasted it live on YouTube to raise awareness about the emerging food crisis in the Sahel. The World Food Programme’s Niger country director, Denise Brown, gave us the downlow on the crisis, and we were joined by CNN’s Jim Clancy, ONE Mom blogger Jennifer James, our friend and Chicago Council Fellow Roger Thurow, and a couple of other folks working in Niger. Here are some major takeaways from the event, along with a few thoughts of my own:

Watch the video here:

1. This is not a case of business as usual. The Government of Niger has been responsive to the needs of its people, and the international community is integrating long-term development into its relief work so that a food crisis won’t happen again. Despite that Niger has been plagued by three serious droughts in the last 10 years, it is very clear that Niger and its neighbors are not anywhere close to suffering from famine. However, help is still needed.

SIDE NOTE: Niger is one of the 18 low-income countries that have both developed a Country Investment Plan for agriculture and endorsed the Scaling Up Nutrition movement. They care. That’s good.

2. Refugees from conflict-affected Mali are pouring into Niger. Sometimes this type of situation creates conflict when local people perceive it to be unfair that refugees get more assistance than they do. To mitigate this, the United Nationals High Commissioner on Refugees is building schools for the locals, who are extremely poor themselves. This may help with the integration of refugees in the long run.

3. Climate change is a serious issue for farmers in Africa, especially in the Sahel which is drought-prone to begin with. They can’t rely on rainfall like they used to, and development organizations must account for this when they design programs to help farmers. This isn’t news, but it’s really important when thinking about how to break the cycle of crisis.

4. As someone who has devoted her professional life to agriculture, this is hard for me to say: agriculture isn’t the end-all be-all of development. All countries need good governance (bad governance was the main reason Somalia turned into a famine), and in countries like Niger, where only 20 percent of women can read, governments also need to prioritize education so that people are more likely not to be impoverished to begin with.

5. Early warning bells have been sounding for months, but donors have only provided 37 percent of the funding needed to keep people from falling into destitution. The dominant thinking is that media is key to getting donors to pay attention, but, as Jim Clancy informed us, this particular crisis is not likely to get much attention because there are so many competing stories. In my opinion, donors should respond when there’s the greatest opportunity to prevent crisis rather than when there is space in the news cycle.

This particular exercise gave a unique bunch of people in faraway locations a chance to connect and share information on an important topic for a real purpose. I’d like to see advocates use more of the Google+ Hangout medium, which is apparently growing, in order to raise awareness about causes they care about.

Check out the WFP Sahel Food Crisis Hangout, tweet about it to your friends, or organize your own hangout to talk about what you’re going to do to end global hunger.