Senegal is a colorful country known for the vibrancy of its music, the delight of its food, and the splash of color in its clothing. Yet, it is also a country suffering from poverty, food insecurity, and a lack of economic growth despite a stable democracy and a functioning government. As a Presidential Management Fellow, I had the privilege of serving on a rotation at Embassy Dakar last fall. But I had no idea how far away from the bustling capital city the job would take me.
Northern Senegal is an arid region which suffers from decreasing rainfall and desertification. Like most of the region, the province of Matam in northeastern Senegal is plagued by poverty and illiteracy: one in two people live in poverty and only one in four people can read. Three consecutive years of drought from 2013 to 2015 sent malnutrition rates soaring and led to an acute need for food aid.
I organized a week-long trip to northern Senegal for U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Senegal James P. Zumwalt so that he could see first-hand the lingering impacts of this drought and vital U.S. assistance programs in action. As part of that trip, Ambassador Zumwalt and I traveled to a USAID-supported hospital treating severe cases of malnutrition.
Despite all of the preparation and all of the briefing papers, nothing could have prepared me for meeting with one of the mothers and her four-month old child who was so malnourished she looked like she had just been born. It was in this moment that I recognized the critical role of our country’s Global Food Security Act in helping people in these dire circumstances. For what could be more valuable than investing in a system that allows a mother, and countless others, to grow more bountiful and nutritious crops so that they can feed their own children?
In July, Congress passed the Global Food Security Act and allocated $7 billion to support smallholder farmers and improve the nutrition of women and children worldwide. Our trip to northern Senegal allowed us directly observe some of the most important aspects of the program, like providing training and capital to jumpstart agriculture entrepreneurs or supporting women farmers with training and supplies so they can provide for themselves and their families.
One of the most inspiring people we met on the trip was an entrepreneur in Matam that founded his own agricultural supply shop. While USAID played an essential role in selling him high-quality seeds, it was really Abdoulaye who stole the show. He worked with local farmers to educate them on the nutritional value of various crops and to train them on best practices for cultivation. His store formed the bedrock of the town.
Senegal is a poor country that struggles with unpredictable rains and low agricultural yields. But Senegal is also a country with a proud and resourceful people. By choosing to invest to increase productivity and improve nutrition before drought or other disasters hit, the U.S. government enables people like Abdoulaye and Demba to support themselves and their families – and to help them create a more prosperous and resilient society.
About the author: Zach Blackburn serves in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.