Between emergencies

October 17, 2005

It seems like eons ago, but just a couple of months have passed since heart-wrenching pictures of children dying of hunger in Niger represented the world's most pressing tragedy.

Unlike the earthquakes and hurricanes more recently in the spotlight, Niger's food shortage was a slow-motion disaster that reached catastrophic proportions before most outsiders were even aware of it.

Help came too late for many, and is still not bountiful enough to guarantee a rescue for the rest. But the shock value of watching innocents suffering so horribly from a fate that shouldn't be occurring anywhere in this modern age opened enough hearts and wallets to provide some relief.

World attention on Niger exposed, though, a chronic problem in sub-Saharan Africa that can't be solved with frantic, last-minute aid appeals.

What nations in this region need most is help in feeding themselves - repairing and enhancing agricultural systems that through bad management, bad politics and bad luck have so deteriorated they annually teeter on the brink of collapse. Yet U.S. support for such ongoing aid programs in many nations, including Niger, is being phased out as part of belt-tightening here. This short-sighted thriftiness ensures that catastrophic food emergencies will continue indefinitely - a prospect that is more costly as well as cruel.

In much of Africa, soil quality is poor and getting worse; fertilizer is not available, and farming methods are primitive. Rural areas have little infrastructure, crops are too dependent on rainfall because there is no irrigation, and AIDS is decimating the adult labor force. Even in years of relatively good harvests, there's not enough margin to guard against drought or locusts.

Thus, child malnutrition is on the rise and could affect as many as 42 million Africans by 2025, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

To reverse the trend, more nonemergency aid is required for programs that encourage maternal and child health, provide meals at schools and help farmers install irrigation systems and other improvements. Instead, U.S. spending for such programs is on the decline, with the amount budgeted for this year barely totaling half the $2.1 billion spent in 2003.

The savings here is sadly destined to be ephemeral - lasting only until the next hunger crisis, when it will be even harder to reach those in need because ongoing aid programs have disappeared.

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