Niger needs lasting solutions to its problems

When aid workers start packing up after dealing with the hunger emergency, Niger’s leaders will be left struggling to find lasting solutions to a cycle of chronic lack of food that affects much of Africa.

The United States ambassador to Niger, Dennise Mathieu, said: “Over the long term, donors and government will also have to look at other factors,” not just responding to emergencies like the current food crisis sweeping African nations along the Sahara and linked to a locust invasion last year followed by drought.

“In Niger, there is a long-term problem of chronic food insecurity,” Mathieu said on Thursday.

Up to 80% of Niger’s territory is arid or semi-arid. The majority of its 11-million people live mostly in villages, surviving on subsistence agriculture in a narrow band of arable land along the country’s southern border.

Farmers struggle with erratic rainfall, pest attacks and soil degradation.

The United Nations says the combined effects of drought and locusts have left about 3,6-million people facing severe food shortages this year. Children are most at risk, with about 800 000 under the age of five needing to be fed urgently, the UN says.

Even in “normal” times, two-thirds of the population lives on less than $1 a day and 40% of children show signs of malnutrition.

Huge investment needed

Niger, the world’s second-poorest nation, needs “long-term structural development programmes that require huge financial investment”, said Mahame Sani Abdou, Niger’s deputy director for agriculture.

“We have to be supported by donors to be able to diversify our agricultural production.
Niger doesn’t have the financial resources to do it on its own,” Sani said, adding that about $19 000 is necessary to irrigate just 1ha of land.

International experts also believe only huge investments can make a difference. The US-based International Food Policy Research Institute said in a report released on Thursday that Africa needed at least $303,2-billion in new investments to reduce hunger.

The institute predicted that tens of millions of Africans will continue to go hungry over the next 20 years unless major changes in trade and aid policies are enacted.

Some might question whether Niger’s government is ready to work with the international community after President Mamadou Tandja played down the food crisis in an interview with the BBC this week.

Tandja said his people “look well-fed”—even as TV networks broadcast images of severely malnourished, skeletal children far from the capital in eastern Niger.

Tandja may have been uncomfortable at international attention on what his political opponents at home have been quick to portray as his government’s failings. He went on to say reports of famine were “false propaganda” that had been used by the UN, aid agencies and opposition parties for political and economic gain.

UN experts, though, have been careful to say that while the situation is dire across the region, it has not yet reached famine proportions.

Tandja said his government had subsidised food prices since last year in an effort to ease the crisis. However, experts have questioned whether that response was prompted by a fear of hurting local markets and said free food should have been distributed much earlier.

The role of the government’s market-reform policies, driven in part by international lenders, should be reviewed, according to the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank.

Niger’s government raised taxes on a range of staple foods this year, saying the money generated would fund health and education. The 19% increases triggered protest strikes and were later lifted on wheat, rice and milk. The tax on sugar remains.

Debt relief

Niger has been rewarded by international lenders, relieved of some debt after graduating from a World Bank-International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme that required cleaning up government practices and putting money once spent on paying interest on its loans to work improving health care, education and infrastructure.

Last month, the Group of Eight rich nations agreed to cancel the debt of Niger and other countries that had received debt relief under the earlier World Bank-IMF programme.

In Niger, striking the right balance between economic reform and shielding the poor is further complicated by the excessive pressure on land resources created by Niger’s rapid population growth. The rate of growth of 3,3% is among the highest in the world.

On average, each Nigerien woman has eight children. Only 4% of women use modern contraceptive methods, compared with 71% in the US.

Niger’s challenges could take years to overcome. But Mathieu, the US envoy, remains optimistic, saying African countries such as Ghana, Senegal and Mali have made progress against great odds.

Sani, the Nigerien agriculture official, is also confident about the future, but is adamant that “Niger does not have the means to overcome food insecurity on its own”.

“Our international partners, regional organisations, everybody has to be involved in the long term,” he said.—Sapa-AP

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