Famine in Niger
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GERAINT VINCENT: At first glance, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong in Masochi. There’s poverty, yes, but then that’s a way of life here. It’s only when you come across children like this little boy that you realize the village has a problem: He’s two years old and has chronic conjunctivitis; he’s struggling to see as flies feast on the discharge from his eye.
Suddenly, we were presented with at least a dozen children with similar problems. Classic signs of malnutrition: Distended bellies and discolored hair. Their mothers showed me what they were feeding their children: Two ladles of watery looking porridge per day. Were they expecting anybody to come and give them more food?
After a bad harvest last year, Chief Abhaj Ibrahim prays for a better one next month. “Mothers of the youngest ones have no milk to give them,” he tells me, “That’s why so many have died; 33 so far this year,” he says. He fears his grandson could be next.
The people in a place like Masochi are totally reliant on the land, and because they’re so desperately poor there’s no safety net. So, if like last year, the harvest doesn’t yield quite as much as it should, then they know that for the two or three months before the next one there’ll be barely anything to eat and that some of their youngest children will die.
Everyone here is trying to eke out what grain they have saved. “I worry for my brothers and sisters,” says Jamila, “We always worry that we’ll run out of food.” This harvest should be a good one, but it’s at least six weeks until it will be ready. In the meantime, this village counts the dead in tiny graves.
Monday morning in intensive care at the feeding station and hunger is taking an ever heavier toll. The start of the rainy season has brought yet another disease. Eighteen-month-old Sharifa has a severe case of malaria.
SPOKESPERSON: But she knows this kind of children, we never know, because they can change.
GERAINT VINCENT: Hour by hour.
SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, but I hope this one will be okay.
GERAINT VINCENT: These children are of course so vulnerable because they’ve had nowhere near enough to eat. But although it might look like it, the disaster taking place here is not the result of famine.
And this is why: This market is about ten minutes walk from that intensive care unit, and as you can see there’s plenty of produce on sale. These sacks are stuffed full of onions and sweet potatoes. The problem is that millions of people in this country just can’t afford this food.
Aid convoys are slowly making their way across this vast country, but there’s food being pushed around here by the cartload. Up country there are areas where it’s difficult to find any really young children. In this tiny village, six have died in the last two months. It’s weeks until the next harvest, so in the meantime the older ones are being fed weeds.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.
MARGARET WARNER: Niger, a poor country twice the size of Texas, is said to be losing now 15 people a day to hunger, and nearly three million of its 11-plus million people are at risk.
For more on this unfolding crisis we’re joined by Christopher Barrett, professor of economics and management at Cornell University, and co-director of Cornell’s African Food Security and Natural Resources Management Program. Professor Barrett, welcome. What would you say is the root of this hunger crisis in Niger?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Well, the root is chronic poverty, Margaret. There’s been, as your correspondent just mentioned, a bit of a shock over the past year, low rains, a locust infestation, all of which knocked harvest down.
But the core problem is that there’s no margin here, that these are such desperately poor people that even the slightest shock can cause irreparable damage. Prices have spiked for food in Niger and the real problem here isn’t no food; the problem is people can’t afford food when they’re so poor.
MARGARET WARNER: What else beside those two factors? I mean, can aid get around the country, can food get around the country, or are there problems of transportation and infrastructure?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Well, as the correspondent mentioned, Niger is a country that is more than twice the size of Texas, with a population about the same as that of Ohio, and paved road infrastructure about the same as that of Dayton, Ohio.
So once you spread such limited road networks across such a big area trying to serve a fairly large population, it does become very expensive and very logistically tricky to reach them all. So this is a real problem.
MARGARET WARNER: The winner of the ’98 Nobel Prize in economics, Amartya Sen, famously wrote: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” Now, Niger has been a democracy since 1999. Why didn’t Mr. Sen’s axiom apply?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Well, Professor Sen’s axiom has two problems in this particular case. The first is that, as you mentioned, Niger has only been a democracy for a very few years, and I think it’s an open question whether this is really a functioning democracy just yet. Having people show up in a voting booth probably isn’t the only criterion Professor Sen was thinking of.
Secondly, it’s one thing to have the incentive to respond, because the government knows it could be voted out of office if it doesn’t address a crisis, but a government also needs the resources with which to respond. And the simple fact of the matter is a country as desperately poor as Niger doesn’t have much in the way of resources to work with to meet these sorts of crisis needs. That’s where the international community has to step in to help.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Niger over the past few years has certainly received millions of dollars in different kinds of aid. Has it just not been spent wisely? Has it’s been mostly spent on paying off their debt? What’s been the problem there?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Well, it’s true that there has been a fair amount of aid flowing into Niger, on average a bit more than $300 million a year, only about 5 percent of that from the United States, by the way. But the majority of that aid has been on debt relief; it has been emergency assistance; it has been a variety of things that don’t really get at those fundamental issues of improving the productivity and the health and the education of this population. As a result, they simply can’t be very productive and they remain desperately poor.
So while it’s true that there has been aid flowing into Niger, and it’s an open question how well it’s all been used, I think one needs to be very careful about assuming that there’s this great generosity of flow to Niger. I mean, on average Americans are giving Niger about a nickel per person, about a nickel per American per year goes to Niger, that’s not exactly a generous flow of aid.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the U.N. agencies just this week have dramatically jumped their request for emergency relief aid to $75 million. One, will it get there soon enough? That’s my main question. And two, will it avert mass starvation?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Well, those are troubling questions, Margaret. As you know when the first appeal was mounted by the government of Niger in November, so nine months ago we knew about this problem, they were asking for only a bit more than $30 million. Just by way of perspective, your previous segment was talking about Iraq. We spend about $9 million an hour in Iraq. So for less than the cost of a morning’s operations in Iraq, we could have nipped this problem in the bud nine month ago in Niger.
Now, while they’re in the hungry season and there’s no time left to lose, we have to airlift in food, it’s much more expensive, and as a result, we’re doubling the appeals. It’s an open question whether even with double the amount of funding, and if it all comes in, whether we can actually do enough, quickly enough to save lives.
The unfortunate reality is that it’s very slow to move food around the world, and right now there remain important constraints on how we can get and distribute food to desperately hungry people in places like Niger. Right now we have to procure most of it in the Midwest of the United States and the prairies of Canada, and it takes a long time to move from there to land-locked West Africa.
MARGARET WARNER: But briefly, what you’re saying is the long run answer is not this emergency relief aid, but it’s the kind of aid and management of the aid that actually builds the infrastructure that addresses the problems you were talking about earlier?
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Exactly right, Margaret. We absolutely must do something now. It’s the humanitarian imperative. But we also need to anticipate that this problem will recur if we fail to address the underlying structural causes. If we don’t improve agricultural productivity and we don’t improve the marketing infrastructure so that people can earn a living so they can secure their own families.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Professor Christopher Barrett, thank you so much.
CHRISTOPHER BARRETT: Thank you very much, Margaret.