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At a glance: Niger

News analysis: Niger crisis has deep roots

© U.S. Fund for UNICEF/2005/ Tim Ledwith
Mothers with moderately malnourished children under five wait for therapeutic feeding on a “dispensary day” at the UNICEF-supported Saga Emergency Feeding Center on the outskirts of Niamey, Niger.

By Tim Ledwith

NEW YORK, 23 August 2005 – Even a brief stay in Niger drives home the urgent need for the humanitarian relief that is now arriving after a sluggish international response to the long-predicted food crisis there. At UNICEF-supplied centres where bone-thin children receive therapeutic milk through feeding tubes and those less severely affected get other high-protein supplements, there are finally signs that most of the 800,000 young Nigeriens at risk of acute malnutrition will be reached.

For some, however, it is already too late. And for children in Niger and throughout the drought-prone West African region known as the Sahel, this crisis exposes deeply rooted issues of poverty and human rights that extend well beyond the current emergency.

Conversations with UNICEF Niger staff, local partners and Nigeriens on the ground reflected a far more complex situation than the quasi-Biblical famine portrayed by some media reports.

Certainly the locust infestation and drought that damaged last year's millet crop have led to the worst “lean season” suffered by Niger’s rural poor in years, as stocks of the staple grain dwindle in the run-up to the October harvest. In one of the world’s poorest countries – where 80 per cent of the population lives off the land in a narrow arable region along the southern border with Nigeria – there is little margin for error when it comes to food security.

But this year’s emergency, devastating as it has been, differs only by degree from past lean seasons. With a chronic malnutrition rate of 40 per cent among children under age five even in an average year, Niger has been in a state of cyclical hunger crisis for a long time.

A crisis of access

The problem is not necessarily one of food availability, for malnutrition has persisted in years of grain surplus, and even this year markets are well stocked in the trading centre of Maradi and other cities. Rather, Niger’s people, and especially its women and children, face what one UNICEF staff member called “an access crisis” – access not only to food, but also to income with which to buy food, essential services and basic rights.

When last year’s crop was decimated, the price of grain in Niger spiked dramatically in a commercial market that has been deregulated under pressure from the international financial sector. In April and May, rural families (who have an average annual income of US$170) began to run out of their subsistence food supplies; many found themselves unable to afford enough grain to make up the deficit.

With market controls eliminated, very little government assistance available and a reported concern among commercial interests that free food aid would disrupt the market, there was no safety net for the most vulnerable Nigeriens.

Within three months, images of emaciated children began appearing on Western television screens. In early August, when the United Nations issued another Niger appeal, for $81 million (two earlier appeals had been issued but largely ignored), government and private-sector donors responded promptly.

As a result, hundreds of tons of therapeutic food are now being airlifted to Niger for distribution to the population at risk.

Social factors play a part

Market forces are not, of course, the only drag on Niger’s ability to feed its children in this lean season. Social factors play a part as well and may be even more intractable. The most notable of these is the status of women in the patriarchal Hausa culture, which predominates in the country’s southern region.

Hausa village women engaged in traditional agricultural production are responsible for planting and harvesting as well as childcare, but they have little access to family income. Given a female literacy rate of 6 per cent and the fact that most girls are not enrolled in school, Nigerien women remain at a distinct disadvantage, with dim prospects of economic advancement.

Niger’s high fertility rate, at an average eight live births per woman, is another stressor in an already fragile environment. Early marriage of girls as young as 11 or 12 contributes to what may well be an unsustainable level of population growth.

Finally, traditional beliefs that discourage exclusive breastfeeding can be detrimental to the healthy development of infants and young children.

Longer-term strategies

Besides serving as the UN coordinating agency for nutrition in the immediate emergency, UNICEF Niger is pursuing longer-term strategies to address the social forces that contribute to chronic malnutrition. For example:

  • By supporting community cereal banks managed by women and providing goats to rural mothers, UNICEF boosts women’s buying power and autonomy in good times and bad.
  • By building model early-childhood centres and girl-friendly schools, UNICEF gives both girls and boys a better start in life and helps mothers make informed decisions about their children’s development.
  • By funding clean-water projects, UNICEF prevents waterborne diseases that can kill children already weakened by undernutrition.

Interventions in health care, immunization, malaria prevention, adult education and more round out an integrated approach to preventing the next crisis before it happens.

In some ways, the situation in Niger blurs the lines between UNICEF’s emergency response work and its ongoing development programs. “Yes, there is a nutrition crisis,” said a UNICEF worker in Niger. “But it’s all a crisis. There is a fundamental crisis in access to social services in Niger, across the Sahel and in fact in much of Africa.”

Against the backdrop of the tragedy in Niger, that larger crisis is the humanitarian challenge of the moment.

Tim Ledwith, senior writer at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, recently returned from a reporting trip to southern Niger.



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