The sun is beating down on Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, and Habi Amadou Tidjane Diop is a tired and frustrated woman. Seated on an empty upturned bucket, the mother of nine is waiting in a long queue to buy food.
“I got here early because it’s Thursday and I need to buy groceries for both today and Friday – four kilogrammes of rice, two kilos of sugar, four kg of pasta and two litres of oil,” Diop told IPS.
The shop, in the Medina 3 neighbourhood of the capital, is one of 400 set up across the city to sell staple foods to the city’s poorest residents at subsidised prices. The manager, Sidi Ould Aly, explained that it’s part of the government’s nationwide “Programme Emel 2012”, intended to reduce the impact of a drought which has driven food prices beyond the buying power of many people in this arid West African country.
Figures released in 2010 by Mauritania’s National Statistics Office put the country’s poverty rate at 42 percent. This already vulnerable nation is now experiencing severe food insecurity, according to a report published by the World Food Programme (WFP) in December 2011. The WFP estimated that by the end of last year, 800,000 Mauritanians were in the grip of a food crisis linked to drought.
A study released in February by international charity Save the Children and several partners found that more than a million people would be affected by the crisis between June and September.
Mohamad Baro, a nutritionist with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Nouakchott, told IPS that one in eight Mauritanian children between six and 24 months is suffering from malnutrition.
In response to the crisis, the government has introduced the Emel programme, with half of the programme’s 137-million-dollar cost coming from the national budget, and the balance from international partners. The programme, which was launched at the end of January, provides staple foods at subsidised prices for the poorest, as well as fodder for livestock, and vouchers that pastoralists can use to access water and veterinary assistance for their animals.
Assessing the programme in June, Prime Minister Moulaye Ould Mohamed Laghdaf told parliament, “Over the past four months, the programme’s 1,235 stores have distributed 150,000 tonnes of assistance, including 50,000 tonnes of food and 100,000 tonnes of animal feed.”
But Diop and the others waiting in the intense heat at the Medina 3 store say they are disappointed not only by the long lines, but by the meagre daily ration sold to each household.
“I got home with two kilos of rice, one kilo of sugar and a litre of oil, which is not enough,” the mother of nine told IPS.
Mamadou Samba Sy and his two wives have an even larger number of people to take care of. While Sy is satisfied with the quality of the food from the Emel 2012 stores, as well as the prices, which are lower than in the open market, he too complains about the amounts available.
“Someone like me, responsible for two households with a dozen children, can spend the whole day queuing and return with one or two kilos of food,” he said.
Meanwhile, outside the capital, livestock herders desperate for food for their animals in the parched countryside are also critical of the programme.
Hacen Ould Taleb, president of an umbrella group representing agro-sylvo-pastoralists, complained about the quality of fodder provided, saying it’s not suitable for small ruminants like sheep or goats. He told IPS that herders with a small number of animals have gained nothing from the Emel programme. “Only the big operators and wheat traders wheat have benefited from the operation.”
Khalil Ould Khairi, president of the Mauritanian Association for Consumer Rights, said some of the animal feed being supplied is causing more harm than good.”There’s one foul-smelling feed variety which upsets the digestion of both camels and cows, quickly leading to the animals dying.”
In June, the lower house of parliament summoned Prime Minister Laghdaf to appear before it so legislators could question him over the management of the programme.
Members of parliament from both the ruling party and the opposition vehemently criticised the aid programme’s management, finding fault with both the quality of food and the locations chosen for the stores.
Ruling party MP Houssein Ahmed Hady told Laghdaf that citizens are unanimous in saying that Emel has not measured up to their expectations. He described the management of the emergency scheme as chaotic.
“The programme started seven months late,” opposition MP Moustapha Ould Bedredine told IPS, “the quantities distributed are insignificant and its management has been plagued by irregularities at all levels.”
Bedredine accused the government of using the programme to buy people’s political support, even as the country’s pastoralists are under serious threat.
Ahmed Ould Daddah, from the Democratic Forces Party, warned the government that the country’s livestock herders face catastrophe. “An urgent and effective solution must be found… to avoid the worst.” he cautioned.