Famines in Africa - A Case Study on Niger

By Dr. Ravinder Rena

The spate of hunger-related deaths reported across different countries in the Horn of Africa can no longer be dismissed as a deviation or a passing seasonal setback. In the past six years, per capita food-grain absorption in Africa has fallen significantly. As some of the economists have pointed out, such levels were last seen during the early years of World War II and the Somalia and Ethiopia Famine. It is also observed during the food crises in the horn particularly: the 1970s, 1980s and in 2000 in the region. The per capita availability figure conceals the far worse situation of millions of rural Africans in the region. Growing hunger among Africa’s poorer citizens is closely linked with the agrarian crisis sweeping the region, a crisis that is clearly structural and cannot be resolved by band-aid economic measures.

The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Martti Ahrisaari, called on donor countries and agencies to give timely response for tackling humanitarian problems in the region particularly Eritrea, when he visited the country end of August, 2005. He also underlined that all partners should identify the basic cause of recurrent drought in Eritrea and give prompt response to meet the challenge. Eritrea for instance shifts its national priorities and gave top importance to achieve food security. The complacency with which such issues have been treated over the past 14 years is appalling.

To grow as a nation without depriving future generations of a rich natural heritage is a tough task. As Eritrea tries to strike a balance between consumption-driven economic growth and conservation of priceless biodiversity, it can draw liberally from the policy wisdom of rest of the countries experienced and manifested the same to the world. These countries endeavoured to make a dent on mass poverty, expand agriculture to avert famine, build infrastructure, and create new opportunities for their citizens — with minimal damage to forests, wetlands, and coastal habitats.

Food is now a problem for the poor at all levels — availability, affordability, access, and absorption. Yet the crisis is not one of food alone. The collapse of food security for millions of Africans in the Horn is tied to a slew of socio-economic policies imposed on them in the past few decades. It is observed that the last five years being the worst they have faced in this respect. The withdrawal of credit sharpened the crisis in farming. It is also observed that the rural unemployment deepened hunger and drove large-scale distress migrations of labour to neighbouring countires and/or Europe, America etc. The dismantling of public health systems badly affected individual absorption capacities. Besides, the Governments in some of the countries in this region tended to delay Food for Work programmes until those needing them most have left their regions in a desperate search for work. Nor is the crisis purely regional or rural. The failure of organised industry to create a decent number of jobs in urban area has greatly reduced its capacity to absorb the outflow of rural labour in this Horn of Africa region. Indeed, this has come on top of the problems faced by the urban poor. Many of these policies were nationally, and some globally, driven. If no serious response comes in time, the Horn of Africa experience could be replicated across many countries in North-East Africa and no country in the region will be exempted from the consequences.

But the situation is not all grim. The hope is that the new millennium has brought with it a new consciousness. The Governments in this region have to take appropriate and necessary steps in the coming years to tackle the food insecurity and provide the basic needs and livelihood for the people. Further, they should admit their failure to tackle mass hunger in their respective countries. Besides, the Governments should be transparent and make it clear that economic growth in the region has to be accompanied by equity and social justice. The challenge is to act decisively on this realisation. The coming years will show whether the Governments in this region on the same wavelength, have the political will to tackle this issue.

A Case of Niger

Niger is the second poorest country in the world, and although healthcare is not expensive, many mothers cannot afford to take their children to hospital. Last year's drought was exacerbated, especially in the north, by an invasion of locusts. As it is, four-fifths of northern Niger is desert, with very little agriculture, and the country relies heavily on the savannah areas in the south, which are suitable for livestock and crops.

The Niger government officials explained that the most serious problem is the lack of rain. It was reported that the rain was half the normal amount last year. There were other problems like: the issue of desertification — the expansion of the Sahara desert southwards — means Niger's agriculture will come under increasing stress as smaller yields are used to feed a growing population. There are about 11 million people in the country but that figure is growing at 3.3 per cent per annum. Over-grazing, soil erosion and deforestation — people will walk over 100 km for wood — has meant desertification is a problem that will only get worse across the whole northern area of west Africa. It is to be noted that the problem is not just in Niger but Mali, Nigeria and others, but in these countries as their government pays, thus food is not a problem. According to Oxfam, a British NGO, 2.2 million people have suffered food shortages in Mali, 700,000 in Mauritania and about 500,000 in Burkina Faso.

It is reported by the Medecins Sans Frontieres' (MSF), the major aid agency underpinning Niger's current relief effort, is calling the problem a “severe nutritional crisis” with an estimated 400,000 children at risk in the Maradi region alone. Reports indicate that 15 children are dying every week Maradi. In 2004 it was reported that about 10,000 children suffering severe malnutrition were admitted to MSF field hospitals and clinics in Niger. But in the 2005, from June 21 to July 17, MSF admitted 12,838 children.

And the geographical difficulties of getting food to the worst affected areas remain. Niger is a landlocked state, and most food aid has to be imported by bad road hundreds of kilometers from the ports of neighbouring Benin, Togo, and Nigeria. Further, there are only few big cities and towns in Niger are connected by paved roads; 85 per cent of the people live in remote rural areas.

Even where there is food, it is often too expensive. Though food was imported to compensate for the damage to last year’s harvest caused by drought and a catastrophic invasion of locusts, prices rose due to hoarding. It is observed that many herdsmen and subsistence farmers have lost their animals, and thus the ability to sell their assets to buy food, let alone survive another period of possible drought, should that happen. Others have become too weak to till their plots of land, reducing their chances of surviving beyond the immediate crisis.

The first relief planes from France and aid agencies have just begun to arrive — the British Government has pledged an extra £1 million for the World Food Programme's emergency operation in Niger, bringing its total contribution to £3 million.

But as early as October 2004 the Niger Government announced there would be an acute problem from June this year. The U.N. estimates that about 800,000 children are suffering from hunger in Niger, aid agencies are concentrating on those under the age of five — the worst affected of this number are between the ages of six months and two years old. They are more fragile and not ready to fight against disease.

Unlike countries such as Nigeria that uses its massive oil revenues to import food, Niger's economy of only $9 billion (£5.15 billion) depends on its main export, uranium, whose value has decreased dramatically since the nuclear arms race in the 1980s. Niger's economic situation is further complicated because it is landlocked deep in western Africa. Supplies must be transported by road through unstable countries such as Ivory Coast or Togo. The country relies on its much wealthier neighbour, Nigeria. The infant mortality is as high as 12 per cent — has been kept to 5 per cent in Niger. It is reported that two children dying on average each day often simply arrive too late to be helped.

Author can be contacted for feedback comments by email: ravinder_rena@yahoo.com

DR. RAVINDER RENA, M.A., B.Ed., LL.B., M. Phil., Ph.D., currently working as Asst. Professor of Economics, Dept. of Business and Economics, Eritrean Institute of Technology [under Ministry of Education], Mai- Nefhi, ERITREA.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

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