Urgent Reminders from Niger
The looming famine in Niger is a gripping reminder of the urgency of the task at hand: ending hunger through agriculture development.
Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world, and its impoverished agriculture sector is exhibit A. The country and various development agencies are struggling to hold back the relentless encroachment of the desert with simple, innovative efforts to re-green the Sahel, while also working to increase production and enhance the nutritional quality of staple foods grown in the few arable zones.
Chronic hunger stalks the land, exacerbated at regular intervals by drought and shifting market conditions (currently, staple food prices are high and the market price for cattle, an important source of household income, is low). The government of Niger says the rate of severe food insecurity in the country has tripled since last year. According to humanitarian agency Action Against Hunger, the government estimated that nearly one million children are moderately malnourished and another 200,000 have severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition. Even if those children survive, their physical and mental development will likely be as stunted as the nation’s. The government assessment showed that, at the beginning of the year, household foodstocks had already been depleted for about 20% of the population. It estimated some 7.8 million people (more than half the nation’s population) will be forced to cope without food reserves for at least six months before the October harvest.
The World Food Program has more than doubled the number of people it routinely feeds in Niger, providing food to 2.3 million people. Still, that leaves millions of others foraging on their own.
As the hunger spreads, the WFP says it is working against time to distribute its aid. It is buying most of the needed food from neighboring countries to shorten the lead time to deliver food to the West African country, which is normally about four months.
This provides a second reminder: local and regional purchase of food aid is a vital tool in relieving hunger emergencies.
The current Niger crisis adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. food aid policy – which mandates that assistance must be American grown food shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels – needs to be reformed to also provide cash aid for such local purchases when famine flares.
“We need to move quickly,” says Thoma Yanga, WFP’s regional director for West Africa. (In addition to speed, local purchase also provides market incentive for African farmers to increase their production of food to feed fellow Africans.)
Yet, despite the mounting evidence, local purchase continues to be opposed by some in Congress and the agriculture industry who insist on “keeping food in food aid”, as is their mantra.
The news from Niger of children on the verge of starvation brings a third reminder, this one more personal, of young lives cut short: This May is the third anniversary of the death of one remarkable girl, Anafghat Ayouba.
Anafghat, a slight twig of a girl, was smiling from a hospital bed in the capital city, Niamey, when I first met her in 2004. She was recovering from a large fistula in her bladder which had opened up during four days of labor in childbirth at the age of 15 (she was given into marriage at age 11). The fistula had been repaired by American doctors brought to Niger by the nonprofit International Organization for Women and Development Inc., founded by Barbara and Ira Margolies of New York.
As she recovered, Anafghat cheerfully told me she was eager to return to her village on the edge of the Sahara so she could go back to school. In Niger, particularly in the rural areas, girls are required to leave school when they marry, and many are given into marriage by their families by the time they are 15.
But that wouldn’t stop Anafghat, not after what she had been through. In the hospital, she turned to her father, a goat herder from the Sahara, and said, "Father, you must promise me that when we go home I can go to school. And you must promise that my sisters won't get married so early."
“I want to be a doctor,” she insisted, “and be an important woman.”
Several months after her surgery, Anafghat made good on her promise, returning to the third grade, where she had left off. She then set out to change the practice of early marriage and she became an example and advocate for girls’ education. She was preparing to take the tests to enter secondary school when she died suddenly from complications of an infection (cause unknown) on May 25, 2007.
I thought of Anafghat eagerly studying French and science in her family’s little mud-brick hut as I read a New York Times dispatch from Niger this week. Adam Nossiter reported that, “Thousands of children are being pulled out of schools because parents have left their villages to search for food, and a handful have closed.” And, for those children fortunate enough to still be in school, I know that many of them are suffering, too, as malnutrition saps their desire and ability to learn.
Anafghat would be concerned over the soaring child malnutrition. Above all, she would be distressed that it was interrupting education.
That thought prompts a fourth urgent reminder from Niger’s current crisis: hunger undermines all aspects of development. It undermines health. It subverts education. It drains the economy.
It’s a fundamental equation: Develop agriculture, end hunger, develop nations.
(Photo by Jane Hahn/The New York Times)