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When is a famine not a famine?

President Mamdou Tandja of Niger has told journalists that his nation is not facing a famine, but “food shortages”, which are not unusual in nations that are experiencing desertification from the growing Sahara desert. Tandja is insisting that “The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see,” and argues that organizations like the World Food Program are exaggerating the effects of the famine in order to fundraise. He went on to ask why the Niger government had received only $2.5m of the $45m it had requested from the World Food Program.

(One answer may be that, according to Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index, Niger is ranked 122nd of 145 nations surveyed in terms of transparency, ranking it slightly more corrupt than Zimbabwe, but marginally better than Kenya. It’s always worth keeping in mind that TI’s excellent survey measures perceptions of corruption, as it’s (understandably) difficult to get an accurate count of how much corruption takes place in a country…)

At first glance, Tandja’s position might seem to be absurd, contradicted by the dramatic photos of starving Nigerois children broadcast by the BBC. But the famine in Niger is a complicated phenomenon – there is food in many of the markets, but it’s too expensive for many people to buy, the result of a widespread shortage in grain and elevated prices in comparatively wealthy nations like Nigeria and Ghana.

The “Music Against Hunger” concert this past Sunday, organized by Niger’s first lady Laraba Tandja, seems to reflect this interpretation of the situation – the concert, in Niamey, charged admission fees, which were given to a government agency in charge of food relief. In essence, the concert redistributed funds from wealthier Nigerois in Niamey to poorer citizens in rural areas. If you believe the Nigerois government is able to redistribute that money in a way that will help feed vulnerable populations, this is a meaningful step in demonstrating that Nigerois are working to solve their own food shortages.

The more responsible international media organizations have pointed out that food shortages on the African continents aren’t limited to Niger, but include a “hunger belt” of countries across the Sahara and Sahel. (Nations mentioned in these two stories include Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea.) Peter Apps, writing for Reuters, points out that food shortages in Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland are exacerbated by the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and don’t yet seem to have garnered the media attention than shortages in Niger are receiving.

I was interested in President Tandja’s assertion that aid organizations were misrepresenting the situation in Niger to raise funds. It’s unsurpring and understandable that relief organizations seize any situation where relief efforts are receiving media attention to solicit support, given how many relief efforts never make it into mainstream media. And it does appear that Niger is one of the preferred fundraising pitches at present… but my recent research on the subject suggests that Niger isn’t the hot fundraising commodity that Darfur, Sudan or Rwanda are. In other words, while the aid community is fundraising using Niger as an attention magnet at present, Niger – at least in free market terms – doesn’t appear to have the strong association with humanitarian emergency as more established crises like Darfur.

This may be just the way Tandja wants it. As an elected leader, a widespread famine implies a failure of leadership, as well as a natural disaster. Food shortages, on the other hand, are happening in almost a dozen African nations, both well and ill-governed. On the other hand, famine (selling for $0.45 a click on Google) is better at attracting donor dollars than “food shortages” (a bargain at $0.06 a click…)

Lots more about Google keyword pricing on this earlier post

Update: Jeevan Vasagar offers a great summary of the complexity of the Niger famine in a Guardian article titled “Don’t Blame the Locusts”. He ends up making the case that Mali – which offered free, government-purchased millet to the most seriously affected – averted widespread hunger, while Niger may have fallen victim to taking too much of a free-markets hardline.

Free market hardliner James Shikwati (who I wrote about a few posts back) would argue otherwise. He suggests that countries facing food shortages would trade with their neighbors if free food from organziations like the World Food Programme wasn’t available, and that such trade would improve infrastructure on the continent.

Unfortunately, it’s this trade with neighbors that appears to have exacerbated the problems in Niger, as those most affected by this food shortage don’t appear to have the funds to purchase internationally traded food. While I agree with Shikwati in principle, situations like this one are a reminder of just how complicated development and aid are in the real world.

2 thoughts on “When is a famine not a famine?”

  1. The Washington Post article yesterday made some extraordinary claims about the impact of market liberalisation; and right-wing bloggers over-reacted in the other direction. I’ve tried to offer a reality based middle ground here.

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » What if Tanja got it right?

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