Aid Workers Fight Starvation in West Africa

Millions of people face starvation in West Africa due to drought and political unrest. In Mali, one of the nations most affected by the famine, aid workers are struggling to handle the food shortage and waves of refugees from the countryside crowding makeshift "feeding centers."

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, the songs of Nigerian musician Femi Kuti offer messages of suffering, resistance and hope from Africa.

But first, news of the former: suffering. Millions of people living in the Sahara Desert region are facing food shortages after last year's drought and plague of locusts devastated crops. Niger and Mali are the two worst-affected countries. This week the United States said it would offer more than $6 million in emergency food aid. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton traveled to Mali to find out how people there are coping, and she has this report.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

The United Nations has described the food crisis in Mali and Niger as forgotten emergencies. Appealing for urgent funds, the UN said the two Sahelian countries have been largely ignored by the international donor community with its attention focused on the aftermath of the tsunami and the humanitarian emergency in Darfur in western Sudan. Yet malnourished children are now reported to be dying in Niger.

Across the border in neighboring Mali, the situation is slightly better. Pablo Recalde is the UN World Food Programme's representative in Mali.

Mr. PABLO RECALDE (UN World Food Programme Representative in Mali): There are food shortages. There is hunger. There is no famine. Last year's rains were not good. We had also a compounded attack of the locusts. The previous harvest was a good year, but the one before was a very poor one. So people were repaying loans and had not built up necessary stocks.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Malians are not dying, in part because of tiny interventions, say Recalde and other experts, and thanks to the early-warning food security system, FAP(ph). Mari Galeaux(ph) coordinates FAP. He says the food situation is serious, but that Mali was able to take control early.

Mr. MARI GALEAUX (Coordinator, FAP): (Through Translator) We sounded the alarm bells as early as last October, warning of poor harvests of millet, sorghum and corn in Mali and in this whole Sahara Desert belt. After the locust invasions last year, coupled with insufficient rains, we predicted staple foods and cereals would triple in price around now during the lean season between harvests, and recommended free food distribution to tide people over.

QUIST-ARCTON: To ease the problems, in addition to 40 pounds of free rice per person per month provided by the government of Mali, the authorities have set up selective cereal banks all over the country where food is sold at controlled prices.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: These depots, like Kalikan Women's Cooperative(ph) in Musabugu(ph), on the outskirts of the Malian capital, Bamako, sell staple foods cheaper than in the main markets. Waiting to do her daily shopping, Aseitu Tukara(ph), a widow and mother of six, says the cereal bank has been a lifesaver.

Ms. ASEITU TUKARA: (Through Translator) If it wasn't for the cooperative here in Musabugu, the situation would be impossible for us. Rice costs 325 CFA francs a kilogram in town, but here we can buy it for 200 francs. It makes such a difference. Millet's cheaper, too. Even cooking oil, sugar and stock cubes, everything costs less, so that helps. But things are tough this year.

QUIST-ARCTON: Food security in Mali is a top priority, and the government's keeping a close eye on developments. The president set up a Security Commissariat last year which reports directly to his office. Still, says the UN World Food Programme's Pablo Recalde, Mali is not over the worst and needs help, especially for the pastoralists, the nomadic communities.

Mr. RECALDE: These people basically are always at the mercy of the weather. I mean, there is no good rains and the rains stop early, they don't have much of a stock, food stocks. There is no insurance for these people. So they rely on God's will to send rain, and of course, that means that given the conditions in the Sahara, the changing fortunes of rainfall, they fall in and out of poverty very, very rapidly.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's the planting season now, the leu season(ph). And the UN World Food Programme says while they're waiting for the next harvest, food-for-work programs are essential because national food security stocks in Mali and Niger are running low. WFP has warned that a $19 million shortfall in donor funds for these two and other Sahara Desert countries threatens their fight against food insecurity. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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