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Responding to Famine in Niger

There’s a good discussion taking place on the Omidyar network about the current famine in Niger. Sue Braiden, who is actively involved with the discussion, emailed a number of people who have lived and worked in Africa for their thoughts on what could be done to mobilize a response to the Niger situation. I’m not sure it’s as constructive as she might have wanted – I’m finding that my reaction to most efforts to “help” Africa are to end up explaining why situations are more complicated than they look at first… Anyway, this (slightly modified) is what I sent to her:

The current famine in Niger is something the aid world saw coming miles away. There was a small flurry of articles about locust swarms across the continent last year, and appeals for aid in advance of what was guaranteed to be a serious famine. Predictably, these appeals yielded only a small fraction of money requested by agencies like the World Food Programme. Now, spurred by a set of images filmed by a BBC crew, there’s a great deal of attention being focused on the situation in Niger. But there are serious food shortages in Darfur, Zimbabwe, northern Uganda and Ethiopia, some of which (northern Uganda in particular) are recieving little or no attention.

Despite the remarkable generosity of individuals around the world when confronted with a situation like the Boxing Day Tsunami, we pay much less attention to “ordinary hunger” around the globe. (World Food Program identifies 800m seriously malnourished people around the globe at any time and intervenes to provide food to approximately 90m a year.) Again, media has a great deal to do with this situation. A highly telegenic event like a tsunami – which was clearly an act of God, affected many Northerners vacationing in the region, was well-documented by survivors and film crews, and took place within the frame of the TV news cycle (i.e., it took place at a specific time, making it “news”, rather than transpiring over weeks or months) – brings out the best in us.

Events that unfold over time, don’t effect anyone in the North, are poorly documented and have complex causes tend not to get much attention… and tend to be harder to raise money around. (Reuters AlertNet did an excellent study on this phenomenon, discovering that the Tsunami garnered as much media attention as the 10 “forgotten emergencies” identified by groups like IRIN. I did a similar study, expanding these findings into the blogosphere.)

What this means, I think, is that we need to frame the questions around relief in Niger slightly differently. While it’s critically important that we raise money for relief in Niger, what we really need to be doing is raising money and awareness around the idea that famines happen – again and again – in countries where the economic and environmental situations are especially fragile, and that international groups are going to need to be ready to assist in these situations.

The nature of famine appears to be changing. Historically, people have argued that functional democracies don’t have famine, pointing to the Ethiopian famines in the 1980s – which were, at least in part, engineered by a repressive government to punish political opposition. But Niger is a remarkably successful young democracry – the current situation doesn’t appear to be the result of political manipulation, but the intersection of locusts and drought with longer-term factors: the ongoing spread of the Sahara, rapid population growth in poor countries, and wholly inadequate infrastructure to deliver food from one part of the country to another.

(There’s an added complication in the situation in Niger: increased cross-border trade. While harvests are down modestly from past years, they’re down throughout the region, and therefore comparatively rich nations like Ghana and Nigeria have been able to buy millet from Niger, driving up local prices. In other words, we’re seeing a free market famine in Niger.)

These long-term factors are major contributors to most of the famine situations on the continent. (Hunger in Zimbabwe has the added complication of a disastrous land redistribution policy.) While, long-term, I believe that economic development efforts will help nations cope with food shortages using their own resources, in the short term, we’re going to need to keep supporting groups like the World Food Programme, World Vision, Médecines Sans Frontieres and others who consistently do efficient, effective relief work in famine-affected areas.

Two things I would urge people to do in responding to the situation in Niger:

1) Don’t just give once. Make a committment to give monthly using a program like MSF’s “Field Partners” program. Assume that every month, somewhere in the world, someone is suffering as acutely the children we’re currently seeing pictures of in Niger. Usually it’s true, and when it’s not, it allows groups like MSF to save funds for the next time they’re needed. Pressure friends and family to do likewise. Too often we over-react to crises like the Tsunami and raise more money than can be usefully distributed – conversely, we under-react to the crises we don’t know about – encouraging everyone to spread their giving out is a major step forward.

2) Commit to learning about the other famines taking place on the globe, not just the ones that make the news. If you’re a blogger or some other type of influencer, commit to making people aware of these other crises and helping them make it into the news. IRIN is a good start for people interested in following this sort of news, as is worldhunger.org from World Hunger Educational Services.

7 thoughts on “Responding to Famine in Niger”

  1. I try to avoid sounding callous when I speak of this topic but what are your thoughts concerning te idea that the very type of aid that is given to countries such as Ethiopia, Niger, and Zimbabwe are themsleves part of the problem in that they create a false economy where there is more food in these countries than they can legitematly produce reducing or eliminating the natural shrinkage of the populations that should occur to bring food production and consumption into greater balance.

    My preferenvce would be to have aid going toward education, infrastructure improvements, vocational training, equipement, and even relocation rather than to food. Is this line of thinking misguided?

  2. I’m not quite with you on the argument that food shortages help limit population growth, Ben – that reads as a bit Malthusian to me. But I think it’s worth being worried about unintended consequences of food aid. It’s well documented that food aid can destroy markets for locally produced foodstuffs, if donors aren’t careful.

    I’m with you on the general sense that we should be investing disproportionally in development over relief… but I’m afraid that there are situations (and likely that there always will be situations) where relief is neccesary, at least in the short term.

    Thanks for writing…

  3. Over the last two days I’ve posted appeals for readers to donate to the World Food Programme and other relief orgs. Thanks for providing more context and info. Your work is inspiring for startup bloggers with a conscience.

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