Full Blown Humanitarian Crisis in Niger

Posted: Aug 08, 2005 12:00 AM
Niger is facing a holocaust. Famine has ravaged the nation. Inflation is vertical and shows no signs of slowing down. Nearly a million children are facing starvation, after severe drought and locust swarms wiped out much of Niger's vegetation and livestock last year. Already the second poorest nation in the world, where one in four children under the age of 5 dies each year of hunger, the death toll now threatens to exceed any war or famine in the modern era, if only because no end appears in sight.

Each day hundreds of mothers flock into the feeding stations set up by the U.N.

They carry with them emaciated children. Meanwhile, nearby markets are stocked with food reserves, but are selling at prices so high that many of the people cannot afford it. Nearly a third of the nation’s twelve million inhabitants face starvation.

The reaction of the Nigerian government to this state of affairs has been irrational and inconsistent. They show no signs of truly acknowledging the extent of this disaster. The problem will likely worsen in the coming months, as the rain season threatens to boost the spread of infectious diseases like malaria and pneumonia.

The U.N. food agency is seeking $4 million in emergency food aid. Even so, they have failed to truly come to grips with the problem. Despite the ballooning toll in human life and suffering in Niger, calls for emergency assistance have been largely ignored over the past year. It was not until the media began disseminating images of Niger’s starving children—nearly a million of them facing death—that

public sentiment began to mobilize and governments began to respond. Now food and donations are pouring in. But lives could have been saved if action was taken sooner.

The problem is that the world is often slow to mobilize large scale food relief. Rather than responding to crisis, we need to set up emergency response mechanisms designed to avert disaster. In the short term, that means providing Niger’s farmer’s with seeds and livestock to help them get through the next farming season. Over the long term, it means setting up a standby fund that will better enable the U.N. to pursue early opportunities to provide humanitarian relief.

It also means taking critical steps to address the underlying economics of global poverty. The fact is, much of Africa is kept in a state of permanent subsidence by the richest countries. The EU and America flood third world markets with low priced commodities designed to depress world prices and effectively crush local economies. The willing overproduction and agricultural support polices of high-income countries keep third world farmers poor. The irony is that our taxpayers then have to turn around and underwrite aid packages.

So while the UN food agency appeals for more money, what we really have to do is ask, are we ready to confront the economic realities that undergird this level of poverty? Are we willing not just to provide aid, but to change our trade policies? The people of Africa are looking to us for a better life. I pray we do not let them down.