MARGARET WARNER: More than 3 million of Niger's 12 million people are facing starvation. Today, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan came to see the hunger-stricken country firsthand and draw attention to its plight.
KOFI ANNAN: I think it is important that we as international community work with the government to deal with this emergency not just in the short-term, but work also in the longer-term issues of food security to ensure that in another five or three years we don't come back to the same problem.
MARGARET WARNER: In the past six months, the U.N. has dramatically increased its calls for relief aid to $75 million, but so far only half of that has even been pledged by U.N. member states. But it's not only Niger that's struggling with famine. An entire swath of land in Africa, stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, is in trouble. This semi-desert region known as the Sahel straddles the southern edge of the Sahara. At least five countries now face hunger emergencies, and others are on the brink. Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently warned of other "Nigers waiting to happen."
Famine is no stranger to many of these countries. Ethiopia captured the world's attention in the mid-1980s when as many as 1 million people starved to death. But now, a "perfect storm" of interlocking problems has created the most wide-ranging food shortages in decades. Among the most recent disasters to strike these already impoverished countries: A prolonged drought and, last year, an invasion of locusts.
Millions of dollars of emergency aid, through the U.N. and other donors, is now being used to maintain feeding centers in several of these countries, trying to tide their people over until the harvests expected in October.
MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the food crisis in this region of Africa, we turn to: John Ambler, a senior vice president at Oxfam America, an international aid group that provides emergency relief services in Africa and elsewhere in the world; and Julius Coles, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now president of Africare, a private organization focused on development projects in Africa. Welcome to you both.
John Ambler, let me start with you. How severe a situation are a lot of these other countries in? How many other -- in Desmond Tutu's words -- Nigers about to happen are there?
JOHN AMBLER: Well, we have a severe problem in a number of countries in that area just south of the Sahara. Ethiopia, of course, is again in the news with possibly 10 million people in various stages of food crisis. We've got Somalia with perhaps a million people; Niger, of course, over three million people; Mali, about a million people. Mauritania maybe 800,000 are at risk. And Burkina Faso probably 500,000 are in immediate need. So it's quite a large number. And that's not counting the over four million people displaced in the Sudan who require food assistance.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Julius Coles, why is this region of Africa plagued by food crises like these? What do these countries have in common?
JULIUS COLES: Well I think most of these countries have structural agricultural problems. They have poor and porous soils. They have different weather conditions. Sometimes it's not enough water or rain and it's very dry. They also have infestation of locusts and those types of things. So it's not all a problem of policy or government policy. It's a question of the structural problems that exist in many of these countries.
MARGARET WARNER: But you're saying it's more than just the sort of proximate causes of this drought and the locusts?
JULIUS COLES: Right. The African soils have traditionally been very difficult, the lack of fertilizer, the lack of technology, the lack of the proper inputs to increase agricultural production. But there's also the question of natural disasters that often occur in Africa. And I think that those things really have to be borne in mind.
MARGARET WARNER: John Ambler, what would you add to that in terms of the endemic problems that make this region of Africa so vulnerable to these sorts of food crises?
JOHN AMBLER: Well, I think there's the problem of poverty more generally. There's been a great underinvestment in these countries. There's been underinvestment in health, underinvestment in education, in reproductive health services. All of the issues that really combine to make extreme poverty are exacerbated by the natural conditions that Julius was referring to.
MARGARET WARNER: Do the governments in these countries-- and I hate to generalize because I'm sure there are -- I know there are differences among them -- but are they just overwhelmed and unable to cope? Have they contributed to the problem in some way with policies?
JOHN AMBLER: Well, it is difficult to generalize. For example, Mali has responded quite well to this crisis by releasing food stocks earlier than some other countries and so their food crisis is not as severe. You do have, you know, issues where sometimes the government is slow to respond, but I think you have to look at really what kind of resources these governments have to work with. Many of these governments are receiving only 12 or 13 or 14 dollars per person per year in aid. Whereas the United Nations estimates that to really get out of poverty you need three or four times that much.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it's the same problem, that it's going to take investment from the outside world in these countries to get them out of this cycle that they're in?
JULIUS COLES: Well, I think it's going to take....
MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry, I'm turning to Mr. Coles now.
JULIUS COLES: I think it's going to take investment from donors but I think the African countries themselves are saying that we really have to bite the bullet ourselves. We have to follow the correct economic policies. We have to make the right investment decisions and choices. We have to have to have the right governance. We have to get the people involved in making choices. And I think NEPAD has brought around a new realization that Africans are saying....
MARGARET WARNER: What is NEPAD?
JULIUS COLES: This is a new economic policy for Africa. This is a new plan that has been developed by Africans themselves to take control of their own economic development.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, one thing that I've read and we've seen in Niger is there are parts of the country where there is actually a lot of food but it's too expensive for most people to afford. Why did that happen?
JULIUS COLES: Well, the government faced a crisis where there was 11 percent shortfall in their food needs. And they foresaw that. They thought that they could cover this with increasing their imports of food because there's a normal shortage in the months of June and October. They call it the hungry season in Africa. They knew it was coming, but they didn't realize it was going to be as severe as it was. But what happened is that some of the traders in neighboring countries or where they expected to buy this food they began to horde food because they expected the prices would be much higher. So the government was not able to purchase about 33,000 metric tons that it had hoped to be able to purchase. And, therefore, the shortfall happened. And the donor community did not respond as quickly as it might have.
MARGARET WARNER: And, John Ambler, follow up on that in terms of the donor community. There are requests from the U.N. World Food Program I think last November and again in May. The requests have gone up but the pledges and actual money has lagged way behind. And is it the case now that it's now going to cost a lot more in emergency aid to rectify the problem than it would have cost had the aid been forthcoming earlier?
JOHN AMBLER: That's certainly seems to be the case. The United Nations was estimating that if the aid that they had asked for back in November had been forthcoming it would have cost about $1 per child to provide assistance. Now because of the need to provide air transport services and special expediting it's costing perhaps $80 per child to provide assistance, so I think it really shows how important it is for the donor community to have assistance come early. That's why it's so important that the United Nations be able to augment its emergency revolving fund. Oxfam is supporting the proposal that this fund be augmented from its $50 million treasury right now to $1 billion so that these types of emergencies don't become acute and that the United Nations can respond earlier.
MARGARET WARNER: In other words, rather than having to go hat in hand about every country when the crisis develops there would be just a fund there that could be dispensed from New York?
JOHN AMBLER: That's correct. And the fund would have both grant facilities as well as loan facilities. And it would be replenished through donor contributions.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Coles, are there other countries in this region that actually right now need kind of short-term emergency relief to prevent them from being a Niger?
JULIUS COLES: I think there are. In the West African area we have heard that Mauritania would be one, Mali also requiring additional assistance -- Burkina Faso. Those are the countries in West Africa that are experiencing the shortfall in their food situation.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally we heard Kofi Annan say of course the real answer is a more long-term one. I think his phrase was, I mean, to address the whole question of food security and to ensure that this same thing doesn't happen in another three to five years. You've talked about investment, but what kind of investment? What would it really take in these African countries so that they became more self-sufficient?
JULIUS COLES: Well, I think that that's a very long-term issue in Africa's development. You talked about the food crisis in Ethiopia. I remember just visiting there not too long ago. We were putting -- for every $50 being put into purchase of food we were only putting something like $1 in terms of helping the Ethiopians to improve the agriculture. We need to turn that around and put more money in helping Africans to grow more food themselves rather than giving them food assistance. Yes, the donor countries can provide short-term food assistance but we need to help them to grow more food. And that is with the appropriate technology, by giving them proper seeds and giving them the proper implements and tools and the proper irrigation and water so that they can be able to grow more of their own food. And I think the Africans are asking for that.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Ambler, do you agree with that briefly, that final point?
JOHN AMBLER: I do agree. I think investing in agriculture and animal husbandry in this area is extremely important. But I would also add that it's important that we look at some larger issues. For example, it's important that we look at the subsidies that advanced industrialized countries provide for its own agriculture that depress the prices of commodities that these countries themselves can grow and, therefore, contribute to poverty in the countries. I think it's important to acknowledge that the debt for many of these countries was recently eliminated. That's important. And if that money that's now saved from debt servicing can be invested in health and education, I think it will reap great rewards.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you -- I'm sorry. We are totally out of time but thank you, Mr. Ambler, John Ambler and Julius Coles, thank you both. And we'll have you back.
JULIUS COLES: Thank you very much.
JOHN AMBLER: Thanks very much.