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Niger, December 9, 2010

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Paul Armour

December, 2010

Opinion: New strategy is to source food aid from nearby producers.

NIAMEY, Niger — Gado Alhadi is 67 years old, a farmer, and the patriarch of a family of 11. He lives in a small, rural village in southern Niger. Alhadi, like many in Niger, exists on the edge of hunger. Unbeknownst to him, he is at the forefront of a major change in United States food aid policy.

Recent months have been extremely difficult for Alhadi’s family. Intense drought led to a grossly inadequate harvest last year. Niger’s hungry season usually starts in July, but had already hit hard by the spring. Food stocks dwindled and the poor started foraging and skipping meals. In late April, the United Nations sounded the alarm: Another famine was looming.

...But this year in Niger is different. For the first time, Food for Peace provided food grown locally in Africa and vouchers to buy goods in nearby markets. The first pilot grant of nearly $5 million was awarded to the humanitarian agency Mercy Corps, my employer, in mid-June. Mercy Corps started distributing food and vouchers in Niger six weeks after receiving the grant — record time by food aid standards — and 130,000 people will get food.
To aid organizations, food assistance experts and many politicians, the shift to providing locally or regionally purchased food, or even cash assistance or vouchers, is intuitive. These programs help get food into the hands of hungry people in a faster, more efficient way. With rising wheat prices and recent riots in Mozambique fueling speculation about crisis-level food shortages, this speed and efficiency are even more important....