The global food crisis, primarily caused by an increase in the price of food and fuel, has been widely reported in recent months, with all parties asserting the importance of facing up to the problem. A recent report by Action Against Hunger based on studies in Monrovia has revealed the extreme vulnerability of the Liberian population in the face of this crisis. The report analyses the humanitarian and economic situation in the country and highlights that the population's food security is severely compromised (despite measures taken by the government). It suggests a practical plan of action to attempt to limit the dramatic consequences of the crisis. Judging by the development of the global market, the agricultural season and food stocks, this crisis has yet to reach its peak in Liberia and the situation can only get worse in the months to come. However, to date, action has been inadequate in the face of a crisis that is severely affecting an already fragile population.
Action Against Hunger has recorded an increase of 40% in admissions to its feeding centers in Monrovia between January and June 2008, which serves to illustrate the risks that threaten the most vulnerable. Although Action Against Hunger has been able to increase the capacities of these feeding centers, its teams are having trouble finding donors to fund a canteen Program for the 26,000 children under three years of age who are at risk of malnutrition in some of Monrovia's shanty towns.
Liberia, whose economy and agricultural industry has been ravished by 14 years of civil war (which ended in 2003), is particularly vulnerable to instability in the international market. Its economy is largely based on the production of goods to be exported (rubber makes up 92% of all exported goods), and on importing raw materials (oil and food represented 25% and 24% respectively of the country's imports in 2007). Any variation in the prices of these commodities on the international markets has immediate repercussions on the country's purchasing power, with dramatic consequences on the poorest people.
Some 92% of the rice consumed in Monrovia is imported (rice is the staple food of the population). The government has put a system in place to regulate the selling price of a 50 kg bag (31 US dollars). An average family consumes one and a half bags of rice per month, but the most vulnerable households can't afford to buy a whole bag at once, so they buy it by the cup. Yet, the price per cup is not regulated and is 20% more expensive (39 US$ for 50 kg in May last year). It is therefore the most vulnerable who pay the most for their rice. It must be remembered that an estimated 29% of the urban population live in extreme poverty in Liberia (people living on less than 1 US dollar per day).This situation is becoming untenable for people living in Monrovia, and has gotten worse since the beginning of the rainy season (June – October). This season brings its own health risks, transportation problems and an increase in local food prices (during the hunger gap season). This leads to a reduction in sources of income, with day-to-day work becoming increasingly rare for men, and people, especially women, encountering major problems with running small businesses.
The direct consequences of this reduction in income and the increase in the price of commodities are a change in diet, with people eating less proteins (meat and fish), which could have long- and short-term consequences on their health; an increase in the number of children helping to support families financially, and a significant increase in crime in the capital.
A need for actions rather than words
The national budget of the Republic of Liberia is around 200 million dollars. Even if some measures have been taken to try to control the rise in prices of commodities on a national level, they remain, to date, extremely limited: Liberia must rely on the international community to come through this crisis.
Action Against Hunger's teams, present in Liberia since 1990, have compiled a list of recommendations and an action plan for the short- and medium-term. To be able to help the thousands of children and their families affected by this crisis, we must increase the capacity for treatment for acute malnutrition to 3,600 children (in progress), set up canteens in the most vulnerable areas of Monrovia for 26,000 children to ensure that they get at least one meal per day, distribute food to pregnant and breast-feeding women and put in place measures to stop the resale of commodities for profit to increase the purchasing power of the most vulnerable people. In addition, more long-term actions are suggested, in particular to help restart local agriculture in rural as well as urban areas.
For the last month Action Against Hunger has been trying to bring this alarming situation to the attention of the international parties involved with Liberia, including financial donors, but, to date, hardly any action has been taken. The UN's World Food Program is about to publish a study detailing similar conclusions.Whilst many have made statements on the importance of dealing with this crisis and on how they would attempt to finance interventions in case a country was hit hard, the worrying example of Liberia has shown that these mean nothing. Do we have to wait until children die before a crisis is declared?
Liberia, which is rightly considered as a country under reconstruction, must now face up to a humanitarian emergency, which has been monitored on a daily basis by Action Against Hunger's teams and other actors in the country. This imminent crisis and the medium-term challenges which it presents risk jeopardizing a large part of reconstructive efforts which have been carried out in the country since the end of the war five years ago. Why are we waiting to act?
STORY BY ACTION AGAINST HUNGER INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION