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What if Tanja got it right?

When Niger’s president Mamadou Tanja declared that his nation wasn’t facing a famine, but local food shortages, his statements were met with widespread skepticism. (See my earlier post, “When is a famine not a famine?”)

BBC’S Henri Astier has followed up on the story, talking to aid workers and experts on African aid, and concludes that, on balance, President Tanja was probably right. Paraphrasing comments by Professor William Easterly of NYU, Astier writes:

There were localised food shortages this year – but they were not particularly acute, and are now easing.

What Niger is experiencing is not a sudden catastrophe, but chronic malnutrition that makes people vulnerable to rises in food prices.

The piece goes on to quote Kenyan economist James Shikwati at length. Shikwati was recently interviewed in Der Spiegel, in a wonderful piece titled “For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!”, and much of what he says in the BBC piece will be familiar to folks who’ve read the interview, or who follow this blog closely. He adds an interesting additional explanation to the Niger famine: a (likely illegal) ban by Nigeria on exporting grain to Niger, which likely would have helped alleviate shortages. (I’ve not been able to confirm this ban, but there have been a number of recent reports on unusual trade practices in Nigeria, including a ban on import of Ghanaian goods, which is likely to badly damage the Ghanaian economy if it holds.)

What’s most interesting to me about the BBC story is the set of comments generated by readers in reactions. Most of the African reactions appear to support Astier’s conclusions and agree that a) there wasn’t a famine, and b) aid alone isn’t the answer.

Spot on! I live in Niger and could not agree more. While the interventions of MSF are laudable, there is no famine here. However, had the BBC and others not reported on the famine, the chronic gut-wrenching poverty would have gone unnoticed by the world. The challenge to the NGOs and donors should not be that they rush to Niger to help during a crisis, but that they remain here for the long haul to help the wonderful people of Niger reach their potential. Will the cameras be back in 6 months to see if anyone is still helping?
JD, Niamey, Niger

Many of the comments from North Americans and Europeans, on the other hand, seem resistant to the idea that African nations could be capable of growing and selling sufficient food to support their populations.

It would be a wonderful solution for NGOs and donor governments to give more cash to people caught in disaster situations – if that cash is edible. The fact is that the proposal to provide greater cash resources will only help if food shortages occur only at a regional level and if well functioning markets can respond to demand. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is that in many situations simply giving more cash, or subsidizing grain sales – as the Nigerian government did earlier this year – will not always solve the problem of food shortages. Sure, we can quibble over how aid is given, and whether it arrives in a timely fashion and gets to the people who need it. These are all important issues. These arguments should not, however, get in the way of providing food to people when they need it.

Besides confusing Niger and Nigeria (happens all the time, EM – Niger’s to the north, drier, and the people speak French there…), EM seems to miss much of the point of the article – even when there are functioning markets, food aid can massively distort those markets and cause increased food insecurity in the long term. Regional solutions, like those Shikwati advocate for, are exactly what’s needed to solve shortages that aren’t massive regional famines… so long as participating governments allow that trade to happen and international donors are able to help subsidize food to poorer areas when neccesary.

The actual debate is less interesting to me than the possibility of this debate. BBC is providing a terrific space where people from inside and outside Africa can offer their opinions on solving African problems… and people from outside Africa can discover, if they listen, that their proposed solutions are often – strongly and validly – opposed by the people they’re trying to help!

4 thoughts on “What if Tanja got it right?”

  1. “When is a famine not a famine” is a good question. The report that “on balance” President Tanja was probably right leads to a number of questions such as “what exactly does ‘on balance’ mean? and if there is “chronic malnutrition” how is that different from famine ie people are hungry and need food, medicine and shelter? Most definitely it is in the interest of the aid agencies to cry “famine” after all their jobs are dependent on African people starving and being homeless. But let us be clear and not pretend that people in Niger and elsewhere in the Sahara region are not in desperate need. Though the cause/s (possibly Nigeria’s illegal ban on exporting grain which if true is diabolical) need to be addressed, thoses causes are not the determining factor on whether there is famine or not. By debating what constitutes a famine or not is like the debate on genocide ie how many people need to die?

    Nonetheless I completely agree with you that neither crisis based or long term food aid are the solutions -the only people who benefit from that are the NGOs/UN personnel, corrupt officials and local racketeers who sell that food and other aid on the open market. It is short term and short sighted and the less of that kind of aid Africa gets the better.

  2. I think you’re totally on track, Sokari, when you point out that there’s chronic malnutrition and that there’s not much of a line between than and famine. I think the answer is that chronic malnutrition is the consequence of broken economic systems, while famines appear to be “acts of god”. As we’ve seen with the Boxing Day Tsunami and now with the Gulf Coast Hurricane, people seem more inclined to open their wallets and help people in the case of natural disasters than in the case of longer, more complicated, more human problems, like Darfur, or chronic hunger in the Sahel…

  3. Pingback: El Oso, El Moreno, and El Abogado » Blog Archive » Oso Gets Reactionary

  4. Ethan:

    Hi, I think that you guys have covered all of the important points here. And I think the distinction that you made between complicated prolonged crisis and situational and temporary crisis is very accurate.

    And imagine, I am making this comment in 07. Isn’t it funny how some issues are so timeless?

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