Niger is suffering its third, and possibly its worst, food crisis this decade. More than 6 million Nigeriens did not have enough food following failed rains and a terrible harvest — a grave situation echoed across the Sahel and reminiscent of last summer’s famine in the Horn of Africa. But unlike that crisis and so many before it, Niger is getting it right.
“It is a success story,” said Cyrille Niameogo, Save the Children’s country director in Niger. And if you ask him, the government of Niger deserves the credit.
The Nigerien government flagged the situation for the international community as early as last August, came up with a response plan and set aside money from its own budget to stave off disaster. It didn’t hesitate to mobilize the U.N. system, bilateral donors and nongovernmental organizations.
“Because there was an early response, the government was able to kind of mitigate the crisis,” Niameogo said. Unlike previous governments in Niger that denied hunger even as children starved to death, this one was willing to acknowledge the problem and ask for help.
A presidential initiative called Nigeriens Feeding Nigeriens gave cash transfers, implemented an off-season gardening project and purchased millet for distribution where food was unavailable. The program was managed at the cabinet level and backed by partners such as Save the Children, World Food Program, UNICEF and other international NGOs.
“A lot of [Nigeriens] have told us that if they hadn’t received what they received, a lot of them would have left the country and children would have died,” Niameogo said. In previous years, people coped by going to Nigeria to look for jobs or migrating to the cities. This time, Niger is an asylum country for those fleeing other food-insecure places such as Chad, Senegal and Mali.
Aid organizations also responded more effectively this time. Niameogo said they learned from the 2010 food crisis in Niger and Horn of Africa famine how crucial it is to respond early and coordinate. Niameogo said the prime minister’s office continues to coordinate the response, holding regular meetings to ensure all partners communicate what they’re planning do to, where and with what amount of money.
They also discuss what has been achieved and what they still have to accomplish: The task ahead remains daunting.
UNICEF reported 394,000 children under 5 will likely suffer from severe acute malnutrition. A director of a regional hospital in Maradi told The Washington Post that the number of babies born there weighing less than 5 pounds is higher than usual. Many families are eating just once a day as the unexpected influx of refugees puts pressure on those who already have little to share.
A 50 percent funding gap has left Niameogo unsure if Save the Children can continue its cash transfers and food security programs through the current lean season and into the next harvest, at the end of September. Health, education and WASH programs might also get cut short if more money doesn’t come in. Other organizations face similar shortfalls.
And of course, all aid organizations working in Niger recognize that no matter how robust the response to this crisis has been, the real goal is preventing the next one. “It is important to respond to the food crisis, but we want to make sure that the donors provide funding beyond this emergency phase to ensure that we initiate activities for the long term,” Niameogo said.
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