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DAKAR - The United Nations World Food Programme today called on the international community to rally strongly behind its efforts to tackle hunger and poverty in West Africa, the poorest region of the world.

In 2006, WFP is aiming to feed at least ten million people in West Africa with over 300,000 metric tons of food at a cost of approximately US$237 million. To date, only US$18.4 million has been confirmed - or about eight percent of total requirements.

"Only last year we saw in Niger what happens when poverty is allowed to take root and fester - livelihoods collapse and people, especially young children, suffer terribly and even die," said WFP Senior Deputy Executive Director, Jean-Jacques Graisse, who is on mission to Dakar.

"Conflict has also destroyed lives and many still need assistance to deal with the immediate consequences of violence and displacement or to pick up the pieces as peace returns. WFP has a huge job to do in 2006," he said.

Despite a good harvest at the end of 2005, the Sahel region will face another difficult year. Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and particularly Niger all suffered great hardship during the 2005 'hunger season' and the poorest are likely to find themselves in a precarious situation again, their survival strategies exhausted and their purchasing power depleted.

In Niger in particular, crushing poverty and crippling debt continue to undermine the ability of rural families to fend for themselves. WFP's emergency operation is currently focused on maintaining assistance to malnourished children. It also includes food-for-work projects and the replenishment of cereal banks in poor villages to reinforce people's ability to withstand another tough year. However, WFP's current operation in Niger still requires nearly US$22 million to avoid a break in food supply as early as next month.

"The Sahel region has for too long been allowed to slip deeper and deeper into poverty, despite relative stability and democratic government. Access to food is at the very heart of human existence and yet poverty means that millions of people right here in West Africa wake up each day uncertain how they are going to feed themselves," said Graisse.

The future of Liberia took a positive turn with the successful conclusion of elections at the end of 2005, closing the chapter on a 14-year war that tore the country apart. However, society and infrastructure remain traumatised and dislocated and in order to ensure a successful recovery, WFP is feeding about 700,000 people in the country. This includes at least 50,000 people who fled their homes during the conflict to camps within Liberia and have yet to be resettled, and another 75,000 refugees in neighbouring countries still to return home under WFP assistance.

While Liberia recovers, Ivory Coast teeters between peace and a renewed conflict that has the potential to destabilise much of the region. WFP's current operation targeting nearly one million food-insecure people is reinforced by a contingency plan to feed an additional 350,000 ready to roll out at short notice should the situation deteriorate rapidly.

The worrying recent deterioration in security in eastern Chad is yet to have an impact on food deliveries to 12 camps that are home to over 200,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur conflict, but an escalation of hostilities could have a dramatic impact on operations. Insecurity in the northern reaches of the Central African Republic also increased the number of refugees crossing into southern Chad to over 40,000.

Even stable countries making good economic progress such as Senegal have significant food and nutrition needs. Over the next five years, WFP is planning to double the number of school children receiving free meals to a quarter of a million as part of efforts to improve nutrition and access to primary education in the country.

In the West African region, WFP also has operations in Benin, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe and The Gambia - a total of 18 offices. All countries in which WFP has offices are classified as low-income, food-deficit. Fourteen are among the bottom 20 percent of UNDP's Human Development Index, the lowest seven of which are all West African countries. An estimated 3.2 million children under five-years-old in the region suffer from acute malnutrition and nine million from chronic malnutrition.

"Almost every social and economic indicator sees West African countries at the base of the list. The need for humanitarian assistance is in many cases overwhelming, but the ability to deliver it is not always guaranteed. We need the resources to do so - as we've learned time and time again, delivering late costs far more than delivering now," Graisse said.

Main donors (US$) to key WFP West Africa operations in 2005 -
Niger Emergency - USA ($5.45 million), Canada ($3.25 million), European Commission ($2.9 million)
Mali Emergency - Algeria ($2.2 million), Netherlands ($1.2 million), UK ($960,000)
Mauritania Relief Operation - USA ($12.2 million), European Commission ($1.2 million)
Chad Refugee Emergency - European Commission ($5.2 million), UK ($3.2 million), Canada ($2.8 million).
Ivory Coast Relief Operation - USA ($13.4 million), Japan ($5.8 million), Canada ($3.1 million)
West Africa Coastal (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) Relief Operation - Japan ($8.1 million), European Commission ($6 million), Netherlands ($3.5 million).