Preventable disaster

July 26, 2005

WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if the United Nations issued urgent appeals to stave off an impending famine and got little response?

The answer, says U.N. emergency aid chief Jan Egeland is Niger, where 3.6 million people, one third of them children, are facing imminent starvation.

Thanks to journalists' pictures of hollow-eyed, emaciated waifs and moving accounts of their plight, money has finally started flowing and the amount of food on its way to the West African nation has increased substantially.

But this was a predictable, preventable disaster that should never have been allowed to reach such extremes.

Lackluster response to the U.N.'s initial appeal for Niger last November can perhaps be blamed in part on donor fatigue. International relief organizations had already been struggling for a year and a half at that point to ameliorate the horrific ethnic violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. Then, last December's tsunami in South Asia immediately became the world's most urgent charitable cause.

More recently, hoopla over the rock star campaign to end poverty in Africa eclipsed news from Niger until it arrived with riveting photos - probably too late to save many of 150,000 children reported to be suffering from severe malnutrition. Hundreds have already died.

Yet this wasn't a failure of generosity so much as poor planning by Niger's government and international aid agencies.

One of the two poorest nations in the world, Niger historically has problems feeding its people. Crops lost to locusts last year and a drought that followed turned an always difficult situation into catastrophe.

Relief organizations that maintain a regular presence in Niger issued warnings last fall that were amplified by the U.N. But Niger's government only belatedly acknowledged the need for help.

The cyclical nature of this problem cries out for a more permanent solution than racing in at the last minute with sacks of grain. Farmers there need help boosting their crop yields so they are better able to feed themselves - with enough cushion to withstand predictable vagaries of weather.

Some programs to achieve this are under way. Catholic Relief Services distributes seeds as well as food, for example, and sponsors training programs. But a far broader effort is required.

Niger offers a case in point for restructuring international aid to Africa, not just boosting the amounts, as celebrity campaigners have been urging. Practical help such as education and infrastructure pays lasting dividends toward the day when even a double whammy from the weather can't throw Africans into anything like the crisis Niger faces today.

Scrapping agriculture subsidies in the U.S. and Europe would also make it possible for African farmers to compete on the world market with products such as cotton.

Meanwhile, the starving people of Niger need food right away - and lots of it.

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