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Global Aid System Stalled as Niger's Crisis Deepened

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.

"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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company