Niger’s hunger crisis: a legacy of lessons unlearned
Months of appeals to the international community for help fell on deaf ears, leaving Niger facing the all too familiar spectre of a major hunger crisis. Samuel Loewenberg reports.
Niger is facing a catastrophic hunger crisis as aid agencies scramble to secure funding to feed more than half of the country’s 8 million people.Small children are suﬀering the worst; nearly 1 million children younger than 5 years have acute malnutrition. Aid agencies on the ground told The Lancet that the widespread hunger could have been signiﬁcantly reduced if international donors had heeded their warnings about the imminent crisis. “Donors could have given early and in larger amounts, and the crisis would not have reached such a severelevel as it has reached now”, said Guido Cornale, the head of the UNICEF mission to Niger. “We knew from October that there was going to be a problem”, said Mbacké Niang, the Niger Country Director for Oxfam. “They should have listened to us from the beginning. If they had listened to us early on and given money appropriately, maybe we could have saved a lot of animals and avoided a lot ofmalnutrition cases.” Unlike the crises from Africa that normally dominate the headlines— war, pandemics, corruption or natural disaster—the millions suﬀering in Niger are the victims of a less dramatic but far more pervasive plight: chronic, widespread poverty, made worse by climate change, high food prices, and political apathy. Hunger is a chronic problem in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.The yearly lean season began even earlier than usual this year, and admissions to emergency feeding clinics for severely malnourished children spiked in mid-May. In some areas of the country, the acute malnutrition rate for infants is more than 20%. Since June, 133 288 children had been treated for severe malnutrition, and 15 000 had been hospitalised, according to UNICEF.
www.thelancet.com Vol376 August 21, 2010
The scenes at malnutrition clinics follow a grim kind of accounting ritual: mothers walk hours, and sometimes days, through the harsh desert landscape, cramming into makeshift village clinics with their children, many of whom have bloated bellies, lolling heads, and skeletal frames, where they are taken one by one and placed in a halter attached to a handheld scale. Thosewith the strength usually shriek in fright and discomfort. They are then stretched out on a simple wooden measuring device, and health workers assess whether their height-to-weight ratio qualiﬁes them for emergency rations. In the worst cases the children are taken to therapeutic feeding centres, where they will spend weeks being brought back to a functional state.
“‘Donors have reacted tooslowly. Donors don’t give to prevent. Donors wait to give until the disaster is already evident’.”
An average of 7000 children are being brought to therapeutic feeding centres each week, up from 3000 a week a few months ago. For those who do not succumb to the lack of food, the long-term eﬀects of malnutrition include impaired brain development, loss of future earning power, and weakened immunesystems. Even when they are released, many might return—if not this year, then the next, and if not them, then their younger siblings. Niger’s neighbours are also facing severe hunger crises, with 1·6 million people facing hunger in Chad, 600 000 in Mali, and 300 000 in Mauritania. Food assistance given to those countries is even worse than that given to Niger, according
to Oxfam. As in Niger, thehardest hit are small children. In Niger alone, more than 300 000 children younger than 5 years are approaching starvation, a stage classiﬁed as severe acute malnutrition. The UN estimates that 15% of them, more than 45 000, will develop medical complications that could lead to death. The starving infants are highly susceptible to malaria, which peaks with the rainy season from June to September,...