Early Action Key To Avoiding Famine

March 15, 2006

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    In Niger, about 3.8 million people are identified as “undernourished” and nearly a quarter of the population needs food aid. Photo: Bob Newell/Mercy Corps Photo:

Niamey, Niger – As the news spreads about drought and famine in East Africa, another potential crisis is emerging in West Africa - a persistent hunger that may not be addressed until it is too late.

Every year, in towns and villages across Africa, there is a season just prior to harvesting known as the “hunger season.” These are lean months when all the food from the previous harvest has been consumed, productive assets are being sold to buy whatever food is available, and the next harvest is still weeks or months away. It is a period when families’ food reserves are gone or dangerously low. And it happens every year.

But what happens if the hunger season keeps its captives building upon debts accumulated from previous years?

Kololo is a small village on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, in Niger. You won’t find it on a map. It has a population of three or four hundred, nearly all of them women and children. The men are gone, searching for work in other parts of West Africa.

For the second year in a row, the harvest was too poor to sustain the families in the village. And even with the men sending money home, there isn’t enough food to go around. Consequently, a great many kids in this and other nearby villages are malnourished.

Millet, a grain Americans know as birdseed, is the staple food in this area. It’s not the most nutritious crop, but it will grow in sand, which is about all the soil there is in this region. The crop didn’t entirely fail last year, but it was patchy enough that few villages will get through the year without help, to say nothing of the next year and the year after that.

In the Filingué district of Niger, I visited projects of the aid agency Mercy Corps, which has provided emergency nutritional assistance to more than 9,000 malnourished kids between the ages of six months and five years. It seems like a good start, but it is just the tip of the iceberg in a country where 3.8 million people are identified as “undernourished” and nearly a quarter of the population needs food aid.

The group’s rural feeding program is simple. Word gets out about the feeding centers and mothers from the surrounding area come. They bring their undernourished kids and receive rations of enriched cereal mix or peanut protein. The kids are weighed and measured so they can be evaluated against well-established norms. Every week the process is repeated, with all steps being recorded in a little booklet that the mother must bring, though she probably can’t read it. The children usually recover relatively quickly and “graduate” out of the program.

Nonetheless, the life here is hard and the stories of these mothers are heart rending. Many don’t have enough breast milk, due to their own malnourishment. Nearly all have too many mouths to feed. One woman I spoke to walked two days each way (about 30 miles) under the Saharan sun to have her baby weighed and get rations. There are no roads, no other means of transport unless you’re wealthy enough to afford a donkey, in which case you probably don’t need the help anyhow.

Mercy Corps’ has another feeding program is located in the capital of Niamey, where it was thought there was no malnutrition. It has registered over 1,100 kids in just 2 1/2 weeks. Couple that with the thousands we’ve seen further north where the crop failures were more severe, and then consider that the next harvest is still six months away. It is not hard to see which way the trend is going: hunger again for another season.

To keep Niger from entering a crisis again is to act now to intervene early, avoiding the fate of millions of people in Kenya and Somalia who currently face extreme food insecurity.

Congress has the opportunity to provide much-needed assistance to this hungry region by fully funding President Bush's $350 million request for emergency food aid. It won't be enough to meet current needs nor will it provide the much need longer-term assistance. But it is a step in the right direction – and more than we did last year.

Robert Newell is an attorney in Portland and chairman of the board of Mercy Corps, an international aid agency.