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Why did helping Niger take so long?

The Lancet  September 24, 2005

When the BBC broadcast horrific images of children starving in Niger in July this year it made big news. More than 5 million people in Niger and three other West African countries faced a catastrophic food shortage. An estimated half a million children, all of whom were facing debilitating malnutrition or death, were predicted to be among the worst hit. The world was shocked into action.

Millions of dollars suddenly flowed in from Europe and America. Donations to the UN emergency food agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), increased more than ten-fold after the broadcast. By August, food relief convoys had started rolling, and hundreds of thousands of people began receiving sustenance. It was a testament to the power of the developed world to relieve suffering—when it chooses.

Unfortunately, much of the assistance has been too little and too late. Development experts believe that fundamental problems in the way the international aid organisations operate prevented food aid getting to Niger's population on time. And, left unresolved, these problems will mean that similar scenarios are played out among vulnerable countries in southern Africa, which, the UN has just warned are facing a deadly mix of droughts, governance problems, and HIV/AIDS.

At issue is the whole mechanism through which aid is gathered and distributed. Rapid responses to impending crises depend on media attention to drum up sufficient political momentum. As Hannah Crabtree of the Johannesburg-based relief group Action Aid, explains: “Until people start dying it is very difficult to raise any money for them.”

The timeline of action in Niger illustrates this point only too well. International aid agencies issued their first alerts of the burgeoning crisis in November, 2004, in the wake of a drought and locust infestation. But the lack of press coverage meant nobody heeded the warnings. Between November and March, the UK press ran only a few small stories on the issue, and even less appeared in US papers. It was not until the images of dying children hit the airwaves this summer that a public outcry arose and governments began to pay attention.

The food crisis reached a critical stage at the moment when the leaders of the world's most developed economies met in Gleneagles, Scotland. Yet although long-term development and debt relief for Niger and other African countries was much discussed, the encroaching hunger crisis was never mentioned.

“International donors do not give based on need, but on political interest and media attention”, explains Nicolas De Torrente, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the USA. “Those are the two drivers and those were absent in Niger until July when the BBC arrived.”

Now, the WFP and private aid agencies are trying to work out what can be done to stop these issues dogging future aid efforts. Some major questions have surfaced: did the WFP recognise the extent of the crisis early enough and explain its urgency to donors? Once they asked for money, was it enough? Why was there such a long wait to distribute free food (which even WFP officials agree was too little and too late)?

Answers to these questions are made all the more pertinent by the fact that most believe the crisis was avoidable. The locust plague and drought that precipitated Niger's problems accounted for only an 11% drop in food production, which by itself, say development experts, shouldn't have caused a disaster on this scale.

Furthermore, the food shortage did not occur in the context of an unsolvable morass of war, political corruption, or sudden natural disaster. There was no ongoing fighting in any of the countries facing famine, and with the exception of Mauritania, which recently had a coup, the governments were all regarded as stable.

Neither was it a problem of money. The sums requested by aid agencies were tiny. Early calls by WFP for $16 million were completely ignored, except for a few hundred thousand dollars received from Luxembourg. Now that there is a full blown crisis, the WFP is asking for $57 million.

Who is to blame?

The focus on markets by international donors is partly responsible for the mass starvation that swept through Niger, say development experts and other relief workers.

For the first half of this year, Niger's government, along with WFP, attempted to deal with the food shortage by providing subsidies, in the belief that the crisis could be contained and managed. But grain traders in the surrounding countries simply hiked up prices and sold the food elsewhere. Jean-Jacques Graisse, the WFP's Senior Deputy Executive Director, explained the institution's reasoning: “We were desperately hoping that the markets would work, and the markets did not work properly”, he says.

The world's richest countries, on which Africa depends for emergency aid, have an ideological commitment to free-market development which often comes at the expense of urgently needed assistance. “The donors are as obtuse as obtuse can be. Markets won't save the poorest of the poor without additional help, and they don't understand the distinction”, says Jeffrey Sachs, the influential economist who heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Africa alone in the world lives and dies on food aid because its agriculture is broken and the donors have contributed to that.”

The aid institutions themselves have also come under fire for their performance in West Africa. MSF, in particular, accuses the WFP of worrying too much about disrupting the markets and not enough about delivering food to hungry people. The WFP's market-based programmes, which include the Food-for-Work programme and the Food-for-Training programme, did not even start in Niger until the last week of July, due to a lack of funding from the donor countries on which WFP depends. Even when WFP finally dug into its own relatively small reserves, it could not find the necessary quantities of food in the region. The Niger government did not allow WFP to begin delivering free food until August, according to WFP spokesperson Carolyn Hurford.

The problem, in hindsight, appears to be that the Niger government, international donors, and the WFP, took far too long to understand the severity of the food shortage and to respond to the acute malnutrition. They neither asked for enough money nor distributed it in the right way. “People weren't tracking access issues. They were looking more at availability issues. That's where the collective ‘we’ got it wrong”, says Titon Mitra, director of Emergency Response for CARE International in Geneva. The private aid agencies, he says, were bound by their dependence on donor countries responding to the problem.

The solution to breaking this cycle of missed opportunities may be breaking with the traditional aid system. The first group to respond to the West African crisis, MSF, was also the least reliant on appealing to governments. MSF made a conscious decision to break from the dependence on government donors two decades ago. Now, unique among aid groups, it raises 80% of its funds from private donors. That gave the group the flexibility to begin relief operations in April, when it instituted a $13 million feeding programme.

Yet between long-term development programmes, which have a notoriously ineffective history, and the frenzied triage that takes place once hunger sets in, finding a middle road—and an effective system of delivering timely aid—remains elusive.

In what he hopes is a groundbreaking compromise, Sachs has reached a tentative agreement with the World Bank to provide emergency donations for seed and fertiliser in time for the approaching growing season. “It's really important they we not just be fighting emergency after emergency”, he says.

But emergencies are looming, and the relief agencies fear that the West African debacle will be repeated, on an even grander scale. In the coming year a massive food deficit is expected across vast swathes of both western and southern African, affecting 35 million people. Aid workers are fretting about drawing the world's attention to it before it is too late and the crisis becomes full blown.

“We know we are going to go into a very critical phase in Africa in the next 6 months. How do we get donors interested now?” asks Mitra of CARE.

“Unfortunately”, he laments, “it takes an image of an emaciated child to catalyse the world into action.”

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