Niger Update: On the Verge of Famine Crisis

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Ed Gordon discusses the unfolding hunger crisis in the central African nation with NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

ED GORDON, host:

We now turn our attention to a major food crisis in the West African nation of Niger. Eleven million people live there; a third of them are going hungry. One of the poorest harvests in the country's history follows a severe drought and the worst locust invasion in 15 years. Children are most vulnerable to the famine. Eight hundred thousand are at risk. Emergency aid is trickling in. NBC corres--or NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us. She joins us from Niger, the capital there, Niamey.

Ofeibea, can you give us an update, if you will, of the conditions today?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Well, the food aid has finally arrived. It's in warehouses. Sacks and sacks of the grains that they--are staple foods here. That's millet and sorghum, high-energy biscuits for nutritionally starved children, really, who are so malnourished they're just sacks of skin and bones. And also rice and cooking oil waiting to be distributed. We were told last week that large-scale distribution would start, but World Food Program, the UN's World Food Program, which is the chief agency, plus Save the Children, CARE, Oxfam, you name it, the Red Cross, are waiting till they have identified the most needy villages so that there is not duplication and so that those in the remotest areas get the food aid they need.

But as you said in your introduction, it's the children of Niger who are suffering the most, and this is the world's second-poorest country. It's a land-locked country, and it has literally institutionalized poverty and recurrent drought. The locust invasion and poor rainfall have led to what has become a tragedy, because the world also did not respond early to appeals made way back in October, November by the Niger government and by the United Nations.

GORDON: We should note that the United Nations has ponied up finally $81 million and the World Bank $120 million in emergency aid, but I'm wondering what you think this money will do in the long term.

QUIST-ARCTON: That is what everybody here is saying. There is an emergency in Niger now. Children have been dying. Children continue to starve, although many are getting to nutritional feeding centers, but Niger has got to tackle its time-honored literally, one could say, 15th-century way of farming. This country--and I'm looking over at the Niger River, a huge river that runs through this capital, Niamey, and yet there's no irrigation in this country. You see especially women farmers--and women do most of the work in Maradi in the south, one of the worst-affected areas that I've just come from, and they're literally using picks and hoes to farm and plant the millet. They don't have mass irrigation, so it means if the rains don't fall--they are dependant on the heavens. If those heavens don't open, the rain doesn't fall, their crops don't grow, they go hungry, children starve. It's a recurrent problem, but this year has been the worst because of all that happened last year.

GORDON: One of the issues and concerns is the money, making sure that it is spent in a way that will be beneficial to all there. How is this money being overseen, and is that a large concern?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, most of the food aid is actually coming through the United Nations, and it is distributing it to local non-governmental organizations and the foreign ones, and they are going out and doing the food delivery, which is meant to be starting in earnest this week. Yes, there's always that concern that because of bad governments in Africa, if money is spent it'll go into politicians' pockets instead of reaching the people. But when things reach crisis point as they have here in Niger--and I've talked about children starving and dying--also animals. The nomadic herders who rely on their cattle, on their livestock, on their camels. Someone said a camel is a brother. If a camel dies, it's a brother that died. They have died of starvation in huge numbers.

So right now the money and the aid needs to get there, and then people from the international community need to watch and see whether it's being used properly. But we have the Canadian health minister here, and last week we had the head of UNICEF, the children's fund, the deputy executive. They saw a child die, a one-year-old baby boy dies in front of their eyes (unintelligible). They were all shocked. I think the pictures that are transmitted to the industrialized world, yes, they make an impact, but when you see a child die, you know the crisis is here. And the UNICEF's deputy executive secretary, Rima Salah, said, `I feel guilty. UNICEF feels guilty. The world should feel guilty. We should not let this happen, so let's deal with the emergency and then let's look at how we can help Niger long term, because it certainly needs the world's help.'

GORDON: And, Ofeibea, very quickly for us if you will, you come from a unique perspective in that you cover many regions in Africa. When you look at this situation and the way it's being played out, and the fact, as you noted, that so many children will be affected by this, is it your hope that the world will now turn its attention and really see what is occurring there?

QUIST-ARCTON: And I am a woman. I am an African. When you see three children, malnourished and skins and bones, you say sorry. But when you see hundreds, you realize that this really must be dealt with. Niger is just the first country in this Sahara Desert zone. There's also Mauritania, Burkina Faso and other countries, Mali, if they aren't given help right now, we could be seeing the same in a few months. So, yes, absolutely help now.

GORDON: All right. NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joins us from Niger.

And we thank you for the update. Appreciate it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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