The effects of the drought in Niger linger, but international donations have dried up in the wake of the recent hurricanes along America's Gulf Coast, according to officials of Africare, a nonprofit aid and advocacy group.
"Katrina arrived, and Niger just disappeared from the radar screen. That is the cold truth," Myron Golden, the group's regional development director for French-speaking West and Central Africa, said in an interview this week.
Golden said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has offered to spend $5 million in Niger over the next 18 months and has asked a consortium of nine nonprofit groups to come up with proposals on how to use it for health and food security.
He said many of Niger's poorest families have traded in their prized possessions for staple foods, plunging them deeper into poverty. Last year, there was minimal rainfall, and an invasion of locusts devoured the meager harvested crops.
According to Al-Hassana Idriss Outman, Africare's resident representative in Niger, who was visiting Washington this week, food prices have skyrocketed as a result. A sack of millet went from $28 to $80, Outman said, and a bag of rice doubled from $24 to $50.
"This season, we are beginning to see some stability," he said, but only because of recent rainfall and international food assistance. Meanwhile, people used to three meals a day have gone down to one meal, and sometimes no food at all, he added. Since 80 percent of rural people are herders dependent on animal products, the scarcity of pastures has aggravated the crisis, he explained.
Sidi Sidi Aklou, an Africare coordinator for Niger's Agadez region, said about 3 million people were at risk, with households on a strict survival regimen. The hardest-hit are nursing mothers who have little milk to feed their babies, driving up infant mortality.
"We try to shore up people's capacity to prepare for crises and shocks," Aklou said.
Africare discourages people from storing grain in straw bins susceptible to fire and provides them with concrete to build solid granaries. The program, funded by $20 million in U.S. aid, trains people to look for signs of drought so they can alert potential donors, and to store rain in ponds and with earthen dikes.
Guardian of the Gorillas
Ten years of violence in Congo decimated its population of gorillas, but Pierre Kakule Vwirasihikya, a tribal chief and former park ranger from Congo's eastern lowland region, risked his life repeatedly to protect them from extinction.
During a civil war in which more than 100 Congolese park rangers were killed, Vwirasihikya remained at his post without pay to shield the gorillas from poachers. This week, Conde Nast Traveler announced that he will receive its environmental award this year for his efforts to establish a large gorilla sanctuary.
'An Admission of Guilt'
Syrian expert and blogger Ammar Abdulhamid, a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview yesterday that the death of Syrian Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan this week in Damascus points to Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and deepens Syria's crisis of isolation.
"It is too bad. Regardless of whether he actually committed suicide, was shot or was told to kill himself, it is sort of an admission of guilt that we were involved," said Abdulhamid, who left Syria last month. "Either he killed himself or he was scapegoated. We don't even need the Detlev Mehlis report," he said, referring to a U.N. investigation, headed by a German prosecutor, into the Feb. 14 bombing of Hariri's motorcade in Beirut.
He added that Kanaan's death would give "the international community and those intending to close in on Syria more ammunition to press ahead to isolate" Syria's President Bashar Assad. Syrian officials said Wednesday that Kanaan died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Edward P. Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, concurred that "Syria was at an important and dangerous crossroads." Djerejian, now director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said that nothing could move forward until there was "a clear indication of culpability" but that Kanaan's death raised "a very serious question of involvement."
Another former American official who dealt with Syria for several years, and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said Kanaan was "literally the man who knew too much."
Maltese Premier's Visit
Laurence Gonzi, the prime minister of Malta, said he was thrilled to bump into former World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn in Georgetown's Cafe Milano last weekend, one day before Gonzi and a group of Maltese officials were scheduled to meet with President Bush in an effort to raise the profile of their Mediterranean island nation as a neutral venue for Middle East peacemaking.
In an interview last week, Gonzi said he had come to Washington to discuss Malta's goal of eliminating the burden of dual taxation among Maltese Americans, as well as its continued efforts to combat terrorism and smuggling.