Catholic Relief Services and the University of Dayton's Strategies for Responsible Development have signed a $500,000 contract for a rural development project in the Republic of Niger.

The African nation is in a region that has been affected by intermittent severe drought and consequent hunger in recent years.

SRD is a component of the Catholic University's Center for Christian Renewal. Brother Bernard Ploeger, liaison director for the center, said the area in which the project will be pursued has been suffering "from the long-term effects of drought and overgrazing." He said the project would attempt to identify new farming methods and plant new crops in blighted areas.

"At the same time, we will attempt to lay the foundation for adoption of these techniques by establishing a working relationship with Nigerian farmers," Ploeger said. On the basis of experiences in Niger, SRD will eventually develop a model for integrated agricultural development.

The University of Dayton project will cost $666,667. Funds not supplied by Catholic Relief Services will be raised by SRD.

Three full-time experts with backgrounds in forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry will go to Niger. Funds also will underwrite a support staff at the university, including Ploeger and two other Marianist brothers, Ed Zamerowski, coordinator of the field activities, and Don Geiger, and Joanne Troha. Geiger and Troha are consultants on project management and evaluation. The University Research Institute will be administrator of the funds.

Several departments at Dayton already have been involved in an interdisciplinary study to develop methods of agriculture that are culturally, socially, economically and ecologically sound. The cooperating groups have been developing a system to determine whether a given farming practice contributes to integrated development.

This led the university to a greater involvement and interest in Niger, where desert areas are enlarging as a result of poor resource management, overgrazing and exploitive cultivation practices.