Niger Famine Reveals a Lack of Alternatives

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Commentator Siddhartha Mitter says the real problem behind Niger's famine is not simply a lack of food. Rather, it's a lack of alternatives for people who live in poor countries. Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

ED GORDON, host:

Emergency food aid has reached many of those who are starving in the West African nation of Niger, but the crisis is intensifying in neighboring countries. The United Nations warns that the worst is yet to come. It's seeking to raise $81 million in aid to cover critical food needs. Commentator Siddartha Mitter argues it will take more than money to deal with the crisis in Niger. He says mass hunger in that country is just part of a complicated problem.


The president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, raised eyebrows recently when he told the BBC there was no famine in his country. He spoke as relief agencies flocked to Niger, a vast landlocked country of 12 million people in West Africa, in response to a food crisis. The United Nations estimates that two and a half million people in Niger require immediate aid to stay alive. President Tandja admits that an invasion of locusts, a prolonged drought and a sparse rainy season have resulted in a bad harvest for Niger, but he asked, `Are people fleeing the countryside? No. Then how can there be a famine?'

His remarks might have been prideful and they might have been callous. They were certainly not tactful, but they weren't exactly wrong, either. Experts are very cautious about using the word `famine.' They reserve it for the rare occasions in which an entire population is at risk of total starvation. Aid workers in Niger have told reporters that this situation is not, at least not yet, a famine. There is food on the market in Niger. The harvest of millet and sorghum, Niger's staple crops, came up less than 10 percent short, not enough to cause starvation but enough to raise prices.

The locusts mainly left the grain alone, but they decimated the grasses Niger's nomadic herders count on to feed their flocks of cattle and sheep. That disaster, combined with the bad rains, drove those nomads on their annual journey south much earlier than normal. At the end of that migration, they buy food, and the animals feed on the stems of the harvested millet. The animals are all these nomads have. Now those that haven't died already are stunted and sickly. Cattle that would sell in normal times for $300 now fetch $10 at most.

So the livestock herders are facing starvation. Other Nigerians are more or less getting by. Why don't the farmers help out? It isn't that simple. They've had to contend with the drought, too. The herders are nomads and hard to reach. Shopkeepers hoarding drives prices even higher. Times are tough for everyone. Add the bad roads and other obstacles that poor countries face, and the result is another crisis in which the real problem isn't the lack of food. It's the lack of alternatives for people who, even at the best of times, are living on the edge.

GORDON: Siddartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

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