Global Aid System Stalled as Niger's Crisis Deepened

Hadiza Ibrahim gives Hadjara Abdu a bath while he sits on a small potty in the town of Maradi. Many children being treated for malnutrition in Niger also have severe diarrhea.
Hadiza Ibrahim gives Hadjara Abdu a bath while he sits on a small potty in the town of Maradi. Many children being treated for malnutrition in Niger also have severe diarrhea. (Michel Ducille - The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

BIRGI DANGOTCHO, Niger -- In a clearing among the millet fields of this starving village, tiny red-earthen graves are sprouting in a row.

Yet what perplexes village chief Issufu Ibrahim, who can count 24 mounds from the past few months alone, is not the tragedy of so many children dying but the apparent unwillingness of anyone to help alleviate the worst spell of hunger in local memory.

Aside from three sacks of grain that arrived from neighboring Nigeria, Ibrahim said, his village of 500 families has seen no evidence that a massive international aid effort is underway.

"We always are hearing, 'They have given something, they have given something.' But on the ground, we have not seen it yet," said Ibrahim, his words tumbling out in a rush of frustration. "We are crying, 'Why are they not giving to us? Why are they not giving to us? Our children are dying.' "

Actually, international donors are giving to Niger -- $22.8 million has been contributed so far to ease its food crisis -- but the help is arriving too late for many children here. The reasons, said aid workers and analysts, have more to do with miscalculation and hesitation by the international aid bureaucracy, which initially underestimated the severity of the crisis, than with reluctance of the world to pitch in.

"This is not a story of donors being mean," said Paul Harvey of the Overseas Development Institute, a research group based in London. "This is a story of a failed system."

Although the hunger crisis was brewing for many months, it was not until the BBC aired several dramatic reports from Niger in July that major donations began to pour in. Moreover, officials of the U.N. World Food Program said they initially tapped only $1.4 million from their emergency reserves for Niger, fearing a larger commitment would leave them unable to respond to other crises.

The U.N. food program receives more than $2 billion a year, but most of that is restricted by donors for use in specific countries or regions, leaving little for emergencies. Also, in most cases, the program's revolving emergency fund can be repaid only with money later raised for a particular crisis. U.N. officials say they would have borrowed more money earlier from the fund to pay for operations in Niger had they been more confident that donors would eventually make substantial contributions to the effort and thereby allow the fund to be replenished.

James Morris, the program's executive director, said a series of recent withdrawals for Niger, made after the rush of media attention, has left the emergency fund dangerously low, at just $26 million. He said a standing fund of several hundred million dollars was needed so the program could more efficiently launch operations in such places as Niger where little-noticed food shortages suddenly become acute.

"It went virtually unnoticed for a good many months" in Niger, said Morris, adding that last winter and spring, world attention was focused on the humanitarian crisis caused by the tsunami in South Asia. "People do get preoccupied by the high-profile emergencies."

Only after the BBC reports from Niger generated an international public outcry did the World Food Program initiate a massive distribution of free food. Now, after a month of frantic, expensive operations including airlifts and truck caravans, the first of that emergency food has begun arriving in the past week.

In most of Niger's hungriest areas, where a combination of drought, locust infestation and profiteering has made food dangerously scarce, there has been little or no relief. Babies suck on breasts that have long gone dry. Cattle collapse from hunger. Villagers eat bitter leaves and sour fruits they would never touch in better years.

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