A Neglected Emergency

October 25 2005 | by

FOUR TIMES the size of Britain and twice the size of Texas, Niger (pronounced Nee-jah), a vast, arid nation on the edge of the Sahara desert, is often mistaken for an acronym of Nigeria, a more prosperous country lying on its southern flank. Yet, in economic terms, Niger is indeed an abbreviation of Nigeria. Rated by the United Nations as one of the world's poorest nations, Niger is a country perpetually on the brink of disaster. Eighty percent of its northern region is desert, which, due to global warming, is in continuous expansion. Susceptible to fluctuations in the price of its main export, uranium, the nation is grappling with a devastating array of challenges such as prolonged drought, locust infestation, regional market failures and agriculture threatened by the encroaching desert.

Caritas International

The grave food crisis currently rocking the country had been predicted as far back as October 2004, following both the prolonged drought and the destruction of last year's harvest by locusts. One report, quoting the charity organisation Oxfam, also cited the HIV/AIDS epidemic, enforced economic liberalization and government policies among the root causes of the crisis. The United Nations Development Program, UNDP, estimated that there are about 32,000 children in the country in a state of severe malnutrition, 160,000 in a moderate state of malnutrition, and more than 260,000 pregnant or nursing mothers affected in some way by this problem. Back in late August, officials of Vatican-based Caritas International, a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development and social service organisations, had warned that famine victims in Niger were facing an especially critical moment.
One report quoted Caritas-Niger officials as saying that 2 million to 3.5 million people, a quarter of the population, faced extreme hardship between August this year and the next harvest, which was expected in October. By the end of August, Caritas had distributed over 1,000 tons of cereal in the country to 507 population centres estimated to host about 175,000 people. It also sent shipments of grain to 63 community cereal deposits. And as the situation in Niger became grave, with images of malnourished children and women beamed across the world, the international community began, belatedly, to acknowledge the extent of the food crisis.

Rally to help

The fate of Niger alarmed many Africans as well, especially as the drought-induced famine has also affected a few other countries in southern Africa. The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, donated 1,000 tons of rice to Niger, with his office announcing in a press release that the donation was made through the Jammeh Foundation for Peace on behalf of the Gambian people. On its part, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, donated 300 million CFA francs (about $600,000) to the government of Niger to help alleviate the suffering of the people. And a Ghanaian radio station, JOY FM, along with its affiliate stations, set up the 'Niger Fund' in the hope of raising $1 million if, as projected, one million Ghanaians heeded its appeal and donated $1 each.
About a month after the fund's launch, the radio station raised the equivalent of $10,508, which, though short of the expectations, was presented to the World Food Program. And one Mr Kwaku Antwi-Boasiako, with the support of JOY FM, started a hunger strike early in August to raise funds for what he termed extreme hunger and starvation in Niger. He said he was compelled by images of starving and malnourished children in the country to raise the funds, noting that the famine in Niger had already caused the deaths of many. Though various international organisations had come forward with aid, Mr Antwi-Boasiako planned to set up an 'African Hunger Response Fund' with the primary aim of providing emergency aid whenever and wherever Africans on the continent were faced with extreme hunger and malnutrition.
It is his hope, according a report, that with the help of like-minded individuals, governments and institutions in Africa and abroad, the fund will become a reality in the next 24 months or earlier. In his words, Africans should no longer allow their people to die of starvation while waiting for the rest of the world to save our souls. We can do something for ourselves, however little. He said that Africans didn't need to wait until they were bombarded with images of starving children swarmed with flies before acting, and that the continent must act first before calling on the international community.

Huge funding gap

Now, as many southern African countries also face severe food shortages, the charity organisation, Oxfam, warns that rich countries were ignoring the lessons of Niger. It started, in early September, to distribute food in Malawi, explaining that an estimated 4 million people in Malawi, 4 million in Zimbabwe, 1 million in Zambia, 400,000 in Mozambique, 500,000 in Lesotho and 200,000 in Swaziland, will not have enough food to eat over the next six months unless help was provided quickly. Though the organisation acknowledged that some donor governments have made significant contributions, it said that there is still a huge funding gap.
Niger was forecast six months in advance, said Oxfam's Regional Humanitarian Co-ordinator for southern Africa, Neil Townsend, yet rich countries did nothing until the 11th hour, and people died as a direct result. Now, there is an impending crisis in southern Africa. The situation is very different, but the principle is the same. If rich countries wait, once again, until TV crews arrive before giving enough money, people in southern Africa will pay the price of their neglect.
Townsend noted that southern Africa is caught in a cycle of deepening poverty. People in the region are used to coping when rains fail, but are increasingly unable to do so because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other economic factors.
Recalling that a similar crisis happened in southern Africa in 2002-2003, Oxfam calls on UN member states to commit an additional $1 billion into an UN emergency reserve fund on top of their existing humanitarian aid levels, so that when a country such as those in southern Africa needs assistance, money would be available immediately. Up to 10 million people are facing severe food shortages in southern Africa, the organisation said. Some people are already being forced to take their children out of school so that they can help find food for the family. Townsend explained that unlike Niger, the food crisis in southern Africa, is about HIV/AIDS as much as about drought. Food is needed now, but the root causes of the crisis, HIV/AIDS and poverty, must also be tackled.
In a report, Neil Townsend stated that rich countries spend $1bn every day on supporting their farmers. If they pledge the same amount every year to a permanent emergency fund at the UN, preventable crises like Niger and southern Africa would not happen because money would be available as soon as a country needed it.

Not an act of God

The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, after visiting famine-ravished Niger, called for better early warning about potential emergencies, more focus on prevention, the strengthening of regional institutions and a look in the mirror instead of pointing fingers. Mr Annan said, I saw profound suffering in Niger, but I also saw signs that the country can come through this crisis, with lessons for all of us.
He noted that in the Sahel region, desertification and environmental degradation rob people of arable land and drinking water, thereby increasing their vulnerability to food shortages; and, as in the case of Niger, when a drought followed last year's massive swarm of locusts, the people were pushed beyond the brink. One of the proposals I have put before next month's World Summit calls for a 10-fold increase in the UN's Emergency Fund, which would enable UN agencies to jump-start relief operations, allowing governments, the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take adequate preparatory measures and deploy personnel with greater speed.
That summit was the 59th General Assembly of the UN held at the UN headquarters in New York in mid-September. With more than 170 heads of State and Government in attendance, a review of  the Millennium Development Goals (a set of targets designed to halve or eliminate a host of socio-economic ills) was expected to be among the main items on the agenda. Unfortunately, the summit didn't dwell on this issue as extensively as it should have because of many other pressing world matters, like reforms in the UN itself, distraction from the devastating Katrina hurricane in New Orleans, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations, among others. The world leaders noted, however, that a number of third world countries were not in a position to meet those goals because many difficulties still abound, like poor health and educational facilities, unstable governments and economic mores. It became clear that, as many countries in Asia and Africa were ill-prepared to meet the goals, they would have to be aided by rich and advanced countries in order to obtain positive results in the near future. And as always, world leaders pledged to work harder to make the realization of those goals possible by reaching out to the less fortunate states. Niger, of-course, is one of such unfortunate states.
With only one third of primary school-age children receiving education, Niger has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world; it also has a rudimentary health system with disease being widespread. Historically, a gateway between North and sub-Saharan Africa, this country, which came under French rule in the late 1890s, has had its progress stymied by political instability since independence, and a five-year-long drought, which devastated livestock and crop production.
Niger is a country of 12.9 million people, a third of which are endangered by the current food crisis. With the capital in Niamey, its main exports are uranium and livestock products, and the major religion is Islam. Life expectancy here for both men and women, according to the UN, is 44 years. Its languages are French (the official language), Arabic, Hausa and Songhai. The current problem afflicting the country, like its previous disasters, is not just another act of God, said one NGO official in a report carried by the Observer of London. This is ingrained poverty. Even if the food shortage is something that happens here every year, it's still unacceptable.




Updated on October 06 2016