Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Too little, too late as poverty deepens

The Irish Times  May 2, 2006


Hunger in Niger is the result not of war or natural disaster. It is more to do with grinding poverty with no end in sight. Samuel Loewenberg reports from Niger.

The open-air markets of Niamey are over-flowing with fresh meat and vegetables. But a few hours drive north, on the edge of the Sahara desert in the province of Tillaberi, food is already priced beyond the reach of many families. The hunger season has already arrived.

It is a vicious cycle. Despite the good rains this year, many villagers are so weakened and indebted from the food shortage last year that they have already exhausted their supplies.

More than 1.8 million people in this west African country are facing acute malnutrition. Most of them are children.

"There is food to buy, but it is too expensive," said Fouré Souley, a mother who has taken her two-year- old child to an emergency feeding centre here. The child's body is so wasted, at only 4.5kg, that she cannot support the weight of her own head. It hangs down, making her look like a broken doll.

In the past few years her tribe came up with a new word, said Souley - "Dabary ban". It means that all hope is lost, there is nothing left to do.

Childhood hunger is a perennial problem in this landlocked country on the southwestern edge of the Sahara. However, it is very unusual to see so many acute cases so close to the harvest season, said Ibrahim Chalaré, the field co-ordinator for the feeding centre, which is run by the British charity Islamic Relief.

Last year was one of the worst hunger crises in recent memory, but even then they still were not seeing so many emergency cases this early in the year, he said.

"They are entering the lean season and people's food is running out. It is like a red light is flashing," said Chalaré.

Despite the looming crisis, Niger remains a largely forgotten crisis. Contrary to much of the world's perception of Africa, the suffering here is not due to war or natural disaster. More than anything it is simply a result of chronic poverty that has not been tackled.

The lack of attention is a reflection of the apathy from the public, the media, and politicians in relation to the number one cause of death in the world.

Every day, according to the World Food Programme, 25,000 people die of hunger around the world. So far this year, more than 600,000 have already died from a simple lack of food. Hunger is not a constant. It is expanding dramatically. At the beginning of the decade, 334 million were in extreme poverty. According to the most current estimates from the World Food Programme, that number will rise to 471 million by 2015.

Chronic poverty snowballs, said Dr Edward Clay, a senior researcher at the Overseas Development Institute in London. Year after year, he said, "people are that much more vulnerable. The underlying problem is the insidious growth in poverty".

Yet foreign aid primarily goes to either military support or disaster relief. Little attention is paid to food stability and long-term development programmes.

"What frustrates me the most is that I firmly believe these problems can be resolved with the appropriate will and determination at the international level, which is very often not present. Because these countries are not geopolitically important, they are often forgotten," said Noel Wardick, who heads the international operations of the Irish Red Cross.

The problem, say development experts, is that the percentage of people without the basic means to support themselves has snowballed.

Developed countries do not pay much attention until a tidal wave hits. Meanwhile, the more mundane condition of extreme poverty has been allowed to fester.

IT is in many ways worse for a hungry child to live in a country at peace and with a stable government, because it is the countries at war that attract most of the funding, World Food Programme director James Morris told the UN last year. The hundreds of millions suffering simply from poverty are overlooked.

"We are afraid that Africa's food crises are becoming accepted as normal," said Morris. It is difficult to interest the wealthy nations of the world in long-term development in Africa, he said.

The attention of the world's rich donors is now largely concentrated on the famines such as those in Ethiopia and the Sudan, with their headline-grabbing conditions of war and drought.

Niger sits at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index, which assesses factors like poverty, education and life expectancy. "Niger is such a poor country that we've gotten used to the idea that one-in-five children die before the age of five," said Jeremy Lester, the European Union's chief of mission for Niger.

The suffering here is chronic and not the result of a sudden catastrophe. Things reached a peak last July, when the hunger crisis escalated - by some measures to four times its normal level - and starving babies filled television screens across the US and Britain.

More than four million people faced food insecurity. Aid agencies had been warning of the problem for six months. But it wasn't until the correct visuals occurred - starving babies - that the world took notice. Europe, the US, and other rich countries suddenly started sending money and food.

A month later, Hurricane Katrina knocked Niger out of the news. The donations disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. By October, the World Food Programme announced that more than 15 per cent of the population of Niger was still facing acute malnutrition, yet no funds were forthcoming.

It was an illustration of what aid workers call "the starving baby syndrome". A lack of starving babies means no funds, and then the cycle continues.

To their credit, the US and the European Union have already given emergency food funds this year, about €13 million. But many aid workers worry it is already too late to prevent mass suffering. Feeding centres are already filled with children on the edge of death.

"Children are already falling into acute malnutrition. The aid money and food will arrive too late," said Johanne Sekkenes, a Norwegian who has led the Médecins Sans Frontièrs operation here since 2004.

Down the road from the Tillaberi feeding centre, in a village of mud brick and thatched roof huts, the food shortage has already arrived. "We don't have any stored up food," said a village elder.

Normally at this time, he said, their storage bins would be filled with grain from the November harvest. But this year many are less than a quarter full, and others are empty. In addition, the price of their staple food, millet, is more than twice what it should be at this time of year, making it impossible for most to buy enough to sustain them through this year's lean season.

Already, he said, several infants from the village are close to starving to death. In a dust-blown clinic up the road, scores of women in brightly-coloured dresses cradling their children are waiting patiently.

In order to receive emergency feeding, their babies must be weighed and measured. A medic takes one of the infants from a young mother and places it in a harness attached to a hand-held scale.

The baby shrieks at the discomfort, thrashing his emaciated limbs. He is 10-months-old, and should weigh eight kilos. He weighs four.

He is one of the lucky ones - he will be admitted to the centre, with its severely limited supplies. Only a third of the estimated 200 children here will receive care.

What the farmers of Male Houssa do not know is that the world's rich countries and international relief agencies knew this was coming last autumn. For the most part, they have not acted to prevent it.

"There will probably be another 'famine' in Niger in 2006," said a report last year from the US Agency for International Development. Why? The study, whose findings were echoed by the World Food Programme, found that another hunger crisis was almost certain, because of the food shortages of last year, but even more so because of thecountry's "underlying poverty".

Meanwhile, charities were desperate to figure out how to interest the world's press. "We talked to journalists who went to Malawi in September and they said 'Oh well, it's not really that bad now, my editor won't be interested in this story unless there's a photograph of a starving baby attached. I'll come back in January'," said Dan Mullins of Care, one of the world's largest aid agencies.

Based on the numbers of lives affected versus column inches, this was easily the most under-reported story of 2005. It is shaping up to be the same in 2006.

But international officials are wary of providing emergency funding. The current system, of reacting at the last minute can do more harm than good, said Jeremy Lester, the EU delegate. Last minute emergency responses, he said, "weakens structural responses, and it weakens the state".

Despite the EU's supposed interest in long-term development, only a small percentage of the money it gives to Niger is directed towards sustainable agricultural projects.The US, the world's largest donor, spent $1.4 billion in emergency aid in Africa last year, but only one-tenth of this went to long- term development.

"The system of foreign aid is very political. Does it make sense? No," said Andrew Natsios, the former chief of overseas assistance in the Bush administration.

Many development experts are now calling for a renewed focus on long-term agricultural development, like the so-called "Green Revolution" that occurred in South America and southeast Asia in the 1960s. "Africa alone in the world lives and dies on food aid because its agriculture is broken, and the donors have contributed to that," said Jeffery Sachs, an eminent Columbia University economist.

The world's richest countries could prevent these recurrent crises with aid directed towards helping the poor grow the food they need to live, by providing subsidised seed, fertiliser, and irrigation. But they do not, he said, because of a fixation with free-market ideology.

"They say we are against subsidies, we are for the market approach. It's absurd, it's cruel, and it's the most inept misapplication that I've seen . . . it's a disgrace," said Sachs.

Another development specialist, Peter Timmer, notes that Africa has never received the kind of long-term agricultural development assistance that helped reduce poverty in Asia and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Neither the donors nor the countries themselves have tried that kind of massive investment in rural economies," said Timmer, who taught development economics at Harvard University. Another key factor is education, especially for women.

Literacy rates in Niger are among the lowest in the world. Only 9.4 per cent of women are literate.

Make no mistake: it is not a problem of a lack of money. In the US, the Bush administration has just allocated $300 million to fund a campaign to plant news stories favourable to America in the foreign press.

If that money had gone to development, there would be no need for propaganda.

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