SCOTT SIMON, host:
The world shudders when it sees pictures of dead babies. There were aid agencies and think tanks that raised a cry of concern about Niger last November. They said that a drought and locust invasions stood a good chance to create a famine there that could put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, which is what scientists and journalists have learned to say when we mean `could kill' hundreds of thousands of people. Those warnings were widely reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, USA Today, Le Monde, the BBC and, yes, NPR, and yet what sort of picture can you take of a warning? What kind of vivid, gripping human portrait could you write about a possible calamity? Would you pay much attention to a story that went, `Mrs. So-and-so of Niger is pregnant with a child who may or may not starve to death next year, depending on rainfall and locust infestation which are difficult to predict. She may need your help, but by the time you know that it will be too late'?
It's not as if the world turned away from suffering either. There are many demands on our conscience and generosity. In Darfur and then the Indian Ocean tsunami, there were hundreds of thousands of lives at risk immediately. There were already pictures to make us shudder.
Niger itself was not eager to ask for help. In Ethiopia and Somalia and so many other datelines, agencies and governments have learned that direct food aid is difficult to deliver to millions of people. It's like watering the wheat fields of Kansas with an eyedropper, and has many damaging effects on a society long after aid agencies depart and stop publicizing their efforts there. It makes the crops local farmers grow almost worthless, which makes them stop growing food and drives them to move to places where foreigners pass out free food, which lays waste to those areas which must produce food after that alphabet soup of aid agencies have moved on to the next crisis.
The debt relief development programs that industrialized nations committed to in Britain this summer may help the future of Niger and other African states, but what will it do today, as we see pictures of mothers with matchstick-thick arms holding fragile, listless infants?
There was a time when famine and locust infestation sounded like ancient afflictions from biblical times. But today, we perceive the world in real time. We can't expect our communications technology to be instantaneous and constant without changing our sense of who shares the life we are given on this planet. Niger is now next door. Helping doesn't have to be seen as generous, moral or charitable. Just neighborly.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.