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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)

"This emergency response came late -- very, very, very late -- if not too late for some of the children," said Johanne Sekkenes, the top official in Niger for Doctors Without Borders, an international medical aid group.

Belka Garba, governor of Maradi state in south-central Niger, one of the most severely affected areas, said there was little evidence of the U.N. food program providing meaningful aid. "If I talk of them helping people," he said in an interview in his office, "I would say they have failed in the region."

The contrast between the U.N. response and that of Doctors Without Borders, which is privately funded, is striking.

At clinics run by Doctors Without Borders in Niger, doctors saw cases of severe malnutrition surge in January and triple by March. In April, the group put a $13 million plan into action that enabled it to set up more clinics and feeding centers and send triage teams into the worst-hit areas. Almost all the money had been raised since the tsunami, when the group used the huge outpouring of donations to create an emergency fund for less visible crises.

The World Food Program, which relies almost entirely on donations from foreign governments, first forecast trouble in October. It made its first appeal for aid in February: a $2.9 million request that aimed to feed 400,000 people. But with the tsunami still dominating world attention, nobody responded to help Niger, a deeply impoverished country of 11.7 million.

The first BBC television crew arrived in mid-July, and soon images of emaciated children and dying babies were broadcast across the world. As other media joined in, donations skyrocketed, with an average of $1 million a day pledged between mid-July and early August.

"It's crazy," said Sekkenes, of Doctors Without Borders. "It's the famous CNN effect, but this time it was the BBC effect."

As the spotlight turned to Niger, World Food Program officials dug deeply into their emergency fund, directing $19.4 million to the country. They also scolded the world's donors, saying they should have reacted earlier. But Harvey, the analyst in London, said that early U.N. appeals were partly to blame, because they suggested the food shortage was more a problem of underdevelopment than a full-fledged crisis.

The government of Niger, in turn, has asserted that the food shortage was merely a manifestation of chronic poverty. Last week, President Mamadou Tandja told BBC Radio, "The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see." The government initially favored offering subsidized food, fearing free handouts would undermine markets and a long-term goal to lift Niger out of poverty.

This year, World Food Program officials said their food has reached 520,000 people in Niger through schools, work sites and clinics. They said the delivery was accelerated as the severity of the crisis became clear.

But the first general emergency food distribution to villages did not occur until Aug. 8 -- 10 months after the program first warned of trouble.

The World Food Program's new emergency campaign is expected to feed 2.7 million people over the next several weeks, with a budget that has soared from $2.9 million to $57.6 million.

Officials said food will soon reach hundreds of far-flung villages like this one, north of the city of Zinder. Meanwhile, though, the parents of Birgi Dangotcho have continued burying their children.

Last Wednesday, year-old Fassoma Abdoulsalam died after weeks of being sick. She vomited; she had diarrhea; her hair turned dark orange. These signs of chronic hunger were nothing new to her parents, who said their six other children had died in earlier lean times.

"We heard on the radio that organizations are giving food," said her father, Abdoulsalam Bukari, about 40, "but it's not here."

Two hours after Fassoma's death, her parents said, villagers dug a hole in the clearing among the green millet stalks, laid her shriveled body inside and covered it with dirt. They placed freshly cut branches on top to ward off hungry animals.

About a foot away from the baby's grave is another dirt mound, then another and another. But they are harder to see. It is rainy season now, and the storms have already begun washing the tiny graves away.

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