Christy Collins, who currently serves as Mercy Corps Niger's country director, has a long history with the country and people of Niger. She first came to Niger in 1975 as a Peace Corps volunteer, having just graduated from college with a degree in French.
Collins arrived in Niger at the end of a serious drought and began working on infant health programs in small rural clinics. She helped start a rehabilitation center for malnourished children, and also assisted local nurses and traditional midwives in their work. Collins often traveled by canoe to reach isolated villages on the broad Niger River.
After her Peace Corps service ended, she remained in Niger for an additional two years working for various organizations on projects that included agriculture, forestry and water.
She returned to Niger in 1993 to work on a USAID pilot program to help Niger's people take measures to improve their food security. Collins stayed until 2000, before coming back for a third time in 2005 to spearhead Mercy Corps' health and therapeutic feeding program.
Q: What keeps you coming back to Niger?
Christy Collins: I have always looked forward to returning to Niger. Not only has each experience offered an opportunity to contribute to development efforts, [but] I also am deeply grateful for the professional collaborations, the friendships and the diversity of each experience. While I aim to contribute significantly, I am constantly challenged to re-evaluate my perspectives, understand the evolution of the social, economic and political contexts, and find ways to concretely help address Niger's priorities.
What are the biggest challenges facing Niger's people - specifically its poorest families - today?
Since some of Mercy Corps' health programs are in the capital city, Niamey, I'd like to evoke the migrant families from rural areas staying in Niamey as among the poorest and most vulnerable populations we work with (since they also come from the poorest families in the rural communities).
These migrants likely feel little link to the urban community, and thus do not easily seek access to public services. I don't think that many of the kids of these families go to school. Nor do family members seek medical attention unless they are very ill, as services are not free and often cost well beyond what the poorest can pay. The plight of the migrant urban poor is the most dire.
What are some of the biggest opportunities for positive change?
[Recent] elections of local councils represent an opportunity for increased participation and contributions by all Nigeriens to governance and development processes. With local officials closer to their consituencies, diversity and level of participation are increasing.
It is important to work with youth, given their readiness to participate in economic, social and civic activities. We talk of the ‘youth bulge' now, but I think that we have yet to see the even bigger bulge ahead - just stand outside a primary school and hear the roar! The youth of today need us to model and address what they will have to face themselves tomorrow.
The Government of Niger and international partners have recognized the imperative to develop sustainable frameworks to prevent crises such as [the food crisis of 2005] through support to the public health sector and local communities. This provides the context for continued and richer participation in tracking and treating childhood diseases locally, and making a real difference in the lives of many families.
How did the food crisis change Niger, and how is that crisis continuing to affect the country and its people?
There have been cycles of famine for various reasons throughout the history of the Sahel. Nigeriens have coped with them in many ways.
The difficult access to food witnessed by vulnerable Nigerien populations in 2004 resulted in particularly high levels of debt among farmers. [Unfortunately] they were unable to completely overcome that debt through the sale of portions of their 2005 and 2006 harvests, much less ensure that their stocks were sufficient for the entire year until the next harvest.
For pastoralists, loss of livestock was aggravated and in many cases they have been unable to reconstitute their herds. This inability to immediately overcome is one reason for the continued significant out-migration [to urban areas like Niamey] by young men, women and families. And it's also why they continue to be at-risk for further market and production instability.
In Niger, news of rain is a valued topic of conversation. I find myself feeling and sniffing the air to be as tuned in as my colleagues. But the signficance of any hint of rain is immensely more profound to Nigeriens whose livelihoods depend entirely on the amount and timing of rainfall.
What's the one best thing you think that Mercy Corps has done since arriving in Niger?
We have supported the integration of nutrition rehabiiltation programs into the operations of 92 rural public health centers, and supported community volunteers to assist the government's health staff in undertaking this work. This has lead to the admission of more than 40,000 at-risk and malnourished children since the program's inception in September 2005.
The initial reticence of some nurses has evolved to engaged commitment with village health agents and volunteers, and community health committees are now fully participating with public services in health monitoring, reporting and coordination. This activity has led the public system to improve its performance in other areas as well, such as vaccination coverage.
What would you like to see Mercy Corps doing in the future in Niger?
I would like Mercy Corps to provide leadership in innovative programming with a focus on the health of women and young children. While our emergency response activities have been successful, it is necessary to develop longer-term commitments to reducing the risk of miscarriage, undernutrition and malnutrition in women and for the overall health of children under 5 years old, in continued partnership with public services and communities.
I would also like Mercy Corps to contribute to the well-being of rural families through linkages between migrants (primarily youth), land restoration techniques, agricultural diversification and productivity, vocational training and civic participation.
How can Americans best help the people of Niger?
Keep the populations of Niger in your minds and hearts, and be proactive in finding an area to support. Be aware of the position of your representatives and senators on issues related to Africa, the Sahel, and Niger in particular. Keep abreast of news of Niger and support fundraisers for Niger activities. Many American and international [organizations] are doing excellent work in Niger.
Mercy Corps programs in Niger are in their initial phases. While our expertise in certain geographic zones and sectors is increasing, continued innovative programming requires the means to conduct probing assessments to guide and inform concepts and strategies. We rely on private funds for this.
There are also important program costs for which it is difficult to find donors: for example, the cost of [effective] treatment of malaria for children is very high. I would like to make an appeal directly for a supply of these malaria treatments for children, as malaria is one of the main threats to the life of a malnourished child. It is also one of the main causes of reaching a stage of malnutrition where the child's growth and life are compromised.
What's one thing that the world might not know about Niger that you'd like to share?
Public perceptions of Niger are most likely shaped by the images of suffering children and vulnerable families.
I would like the public to know that there are sharp, lean, agile and animated primary-schoolers skipping to class, holding hands; persistent mothers who walk 40 kilometers round-trip for a weekly dose of treatment rations for their children; dedicated mayors who meet their constituents at the market and hold open air briefings on the community's latest news; young men and women bursting to contribute and establish themselves.
We are the same.