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Starvation in Niger: where we come in

Dave Wearing | 04.08.2005 07:56 | Analysis | Globalisation | World

What has been in the west's involvement in the starvation crisis in Niger, and what can we do to help?

More than two million people are facing starvation in Niger. Aid agencies are appealing for donations from the public to head off the disaster. Even before the current emergency, 40% of children were malnourished and the north-west African country had the second highest global mortality rate among children under five. This translates into as many heart-rending individual stories as there are millions of people affected by the crisis.

The BBC's Barnaby Phillips reports: "In one hut we met Saadi, whose two-year-old son Mahaya died last month. Saadi started crying when I asked how it happened. "I knew he was hungry and I had to get him to a clinic," she said. "But we could not find the money for the taxi ride.""

Elsewhere, in The Guardian, we hear that "In the MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] treatment centre, a three-year-old girl called Aminata is suffering from a grotesque eye condition. Her eyeball is so swollen with fluid that it has popped out of her skull and bulges from her face. The doctors call it a retinal blastoma, the result of an untreated eye infection.

"The thing in her eye started off very small," said Aminata's mother, Nisbou. "I did not have money for hospital, so I treated it with herbs, traditional medicine."

Asked her age, Nisbou, who is probably about 20, replied: "I am 100 years old." She burst out laughing at her own joke, then looked weary again, and tucked her baby's deformed face under a lace shawl."

Oxfam says that families have been feeding their children grass and leaves from trees to keep them alive.

A government official told the BBC: "We have made an appeal since November and told the international community... We did not have any response". United Nations aid official Jan Egeland told the BBC on Wednesday that "Niger is the example of a neglected emergency, where early warnings went unheeded. The world wakes up when we see images on the TV and when we see children dying. We have received more pledges in the past week than we have in six months. But it is too late for some of these children." As of mid-July the UN had received just a third of the $30m it had asked for, Mr Egeland said. "Europeans eat ice cream for $10bn a year and Americans spend $35bn on their pets each year."

By last week, since the initial warnings in November, UK's Department for International Development had committed £3million to the crisis. The International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn contradicted the account UN and Niger government officials had given to the BBC, stating that "It was only really in the middle of May that people really became clear about the scale of the crisis". The £3million committed by the DfID stands in contrast to the £4.9 billion the UK has spent so far on the "war on terror".

But the culpability of the west does not end at its late, inadequate, and indecisive response. As The Guardian reported this week, "The starvation in Niger is not the inevitable consequence of poverty, or simply the fault of locusts or drought. It is also the result of a belief that the free market can solve the problems of one of the world's poorest countries." Neo-liberal policies that, as a report from development agency Christian Aid recently revealed, cost sub-Saharan Africa US$272 billion over the past 20 years, were once again bringing the western capitalist dream to the backward peoples of the world.

According to the Guardian report, "The price of grain has skyrocketed; a 100kg bag of millet, the staple grain, costs around 8,000 to 12,000 West African francs (around £13) last year but now costs more than 22,000 francs (£25). According to Washington-based analysts the Famine Early Warning System Network (Fewsnet), drought and pests have only had a "modest impact" on grain production in Niger.

The last harvest was only 11% below the five-yearly average. Prices have been rising also because traders in Niger have been exporting grain to wealthier neighbouring countries, including Nigeria and Ghana.

Niger, the second-poorest country in the world, relies heavily on donors such as the EU and France, which favour free-market solutions to African poverty. So the Niger government declined to hand out free food to the starving. Instead, it offered millet at subsidised prices. But the poorest could still not afford to buy."

Johanne Sekkenes, the mission head of MSF told The Independent that the current emergency could have been avoided. "This is not a famine, in the Somalian way," she said. "The harvest was bad in 2004 and the millet granaries are empty. Yet there is food on the markets. The trouble is that the price of the food is beyond anyone's reach.

Ms Sekkenes said the International Monetary Fund and the European Union had pressed Niger too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. "No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 per cent VAT on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished."

The UK's leading aid agencies are launching a joint appeal to raise millions of pounds for those facing starvation in Niger. The appeal funds will go to relief programmes, including the purchase and distribution of food, animal fodder, seeds and medicines. £10 will buy Rehydration salts for 500 malnourished children. £50 will feed a family of seven for up to two months. £100 will keep 10 milking cows alive for six weeks. Donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee Niger Crisis Appeal can be made at

Dave Wearing
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Hide the following 5 comments

same old thing

04.08.2005 10:48

The corporate agenda - funny how this was kept quiet during the G8. The World Bank or any of the Forune 1000 comapnies could fund the entire lot of aid with now strings attached. It also took awhile, I noticed, before people would mention structural adjustment or the fact that there are starving people there who cannot afford food when others are seeling it next to them. I keep getting NGO people saying how trade will help Africa. It will lead to more cash crops being grown while people starve and all the environmental issues that go along with this ( global warming, GM seed bank issues, extreme weather, dodgy competition, continuing gap bnetween rich and poor, energy mariket pollution and more of the same colonial shite. Standards of living can be a very misused ideological term. Food aid should be an unconditional immediate resource - the money and food is already there - having to get donations off the public ( many of whom are poor though not starving in this country ) - The Corporates have the money and food. Force them by ANY MEANS necessary.

World Bank/IMF/Gordon Bropwn/oxfam/cash crops/trade/ecodisaster

Achieving structural change

04.08.2005 12:37

It is weird how the Tsunami brought such an amazing response, but this and Sudan have not. Perhaps because people from the UK were in Asia on their holidays and saw the impact, whereas in these emergencies, it is only aid workers, UN officials and company reps. who see what is going on.

This situation reminds me of the needless deaths caused in Malawi, where I lived for a while, through privatization forced on the country by international institutions. There is more on this in this article on the G8, which highlights a strategy for achieving structural change in global policy setting.

Mike Brady
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04.08.2005 13:22

I am absolutly innocent about the Niger crisis, the usual suspects are to blame: politicans,multinationals and police.
I am already helping Niger and the third world by fighting capitalism, there is no point keep giving them food as long as they live in a system that condemns them to live in poverty for ever, no to charity and yes to the anticapitalist struggle the only way to get out of the poverty card.


keith, where shall we draw the line?

04.08.2005 16:35


I accept that charity does not generally produce change but if it was your nearest and dearest instead of some abstract numbers, wouldn't you want something immediate to be done as well?

No? well following your logic, next time you get injured fighting capitalism in person, there's no point taking you to an NHS hospital for treatment because if you survive, you'll still be living under capitalism.

nee naw

IMF applauded Niger government a few months ago

04.08.2005 22:18

Mr. De Rato - ominous name indeed -, managing director of the IMF, visited Niger in May and was full of praise of the free market and privatisation course of the government. There is no contradiction with the warnings that have been given since last autumn a famine was on the way in this country. Following IMF and World Bank prescriptions leads to famine and disease, period.

Cornelius Coot