Payday brings smiles and hope to hungry families


June 14, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cully Lundgren/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A woman beams as she receives her pay through Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program in Niger. The money will allow her to finally buy enough food to feed her family in the midst of the region's severe hunger crisis. Photo: Cully Lundgren/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cully Lundgren/Mercy Corps  </span>
    More than 2,000 people are building trenches like this with the cash-for-work program in Filingue, Niger. They will allow the land to store rainfall when it arrives, providing new water sources for animals and crops. Photo: Cully Lundgren/Mercy Corps

I had the chance to see payday in Niger a couple weeks ago. Visiting Mercy Corps’ programs that are helping people survive the current hunger crisis, I had seen barren fields, dusty skies, and hungry faces. But that day was filled with huge smiles instead, as people received the wages for their hard work.

Mercy Corps began emergency cash distribution this past April in communities hardest hit by the drought and resulting hunger crisis that has spread across West Africa’s Sahel. After harvests failed last year, families have not had enough to eat — let alone any extra to feed their animals or sell on the market. Farmers have no way to earn an income, and limited supplies have caused food prices to skyrocket. People have tried to sell off whatever livestock they can, but hungry animals don’t earn much.

Now, with four months to go until the next harvest, not only are people unable to grow food in the parched region, they cannot afford to buy whatever meager amounts are on the market either. They simply have nothing to eat.

WATCH VIDEO: Food crisis is just beginning

Until the rains arrive, our teams in Niger continue helping malnourished children get treatment, and are now also focused on helping people survive the summer with cash-for-work programs, which provide them with enough money to feed their families. In a nutshell, it’s a way to get cash into the hands of people who need it the most while also helping jumpstart the local economy — and leaving behind some real improvements for the next harvest.

But it’s not just a handout. Communities first determine what their biggest needs are, and then they collectively identify the most vulnerable people to get paid on the projects that will address them.

In Filingue, people chose to build “banquettes” — trenches that look like the letter “E” without the middle line. They are 60 meters long, with two 10 meter arms. Twenty-one people spend most of the day digging and hammering away at the cracked earth (see picture) to make one banquette. In just one Mercy Corps project, over 2,000 people were working in teams of 21 across a wide swatch of land.

But I wondered, what good is a trench in the middle of the desert? The answer? When the rains come, they will fill with water; the rain won’t run off the hard, dry earth.

People will bring their livestock (cows, sheep, goats, camels) away from the planting areas to these trenches. The animals will drink; seeds from their manure will grow into grasses; birds will come. For a time, the banquettes will become lush ecosystems to support the animals. In Niger, animals are the lifeblood of these communities.

On payday, the mayor of Filingue thanked Mercy Corps over and over again for the project. People were not only smiling because they had money to buy food — they were smiling because they had hope. It’s work that is changing their land and changing their lives.

You can help us bring help and hope to more people with our cash-for-work programs in Niger. Donate today.