Ordeal in Niger; A New Face of Hunger, Without the Old Excuses 

      By LYDIA POLGREEN (NYT) 1203 words
      Published: July 31, 2005

      THE pictures are wrenching. A nomad holds an infant aloft, its gaunt head 
      lolling dangerously, its matchstick limbs akimbo. A father asks God to 
      forgive him for weeping publicly; he has just buried his son. A child in 
      an emergency clinic awakens from a hunger-induced stupor only to moan and 
      weep from the pain of his starvation-induced skin sores. 
      These images of victims of a food crisis in the vast, landlocked West 
      African nation of Niger, captured by a BBC television correspondent and 
      shown around the world, look like something the world has seen before -- 
      the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980's. That catastrophe prompted an 
      extraordinary outpouring of generosity, along with a vow that the world 
      would never again stand by as millions went hungry. 
      Yet here it is again, far smaller in scale, yet replete with images of 
      stick-thin children with hunger-swollen bellies clinging to bony, 
      flat-breasted mothers. Once again there is the question: what causes these 
      calamities that invariably afflict the world's poorest corners? 
      The immediate cause is certainly known. Locust swarms and poor rains last 
      year wiped out much of the nation's harvest and caused grain prices to 
      triple. But when misfortunes strike other countries, they can help their 
      people, with planning, with resources and by seeking aid from abroad. So 
      what has gone so terribly wrong in Niger? 
      For decades famine was seen largely as a consequence of bad political 
      leadership. Food scarcity in Ethiopia in the 1980's had natural causes, 
      but its transformation into a deadly famine came to be understood as 
      mostly man-made, the result of a Stalinist regime's collectivist ideology 
      and its pursuit of victory over insurgents without regard to the 
      well-being of its people. It seemed a neat illustration of the development 
      the economist Amartya Sen's dictum: ''No famine has ever taken place in 
      the history of the world in a functioning democracy.'' 
      But that does not explain Niger's problem. Niger is a democracy. It has 
      been one since 1999, when it made the transition to multiparty democracy 
      and constitutional rule after a decade of turmoil. It has also made, in 
      part at least, the painful transition from a centralized, state-run 
      economy to a market-driven one, earning praise and ultimately relief from 
      about half of its estimated $1.6 billion in foreign debt from the World 
      Yet Niger still earns a horrifically high score on the index of human 
      misery compiled by the United Nations Development Program, which lists it 
      as the second least developed nation in the world, just ahead of Sierra 
      More than 25 percent of its children die before their fifth birthdays. 
      Those who survive go on to scrape a meager existence from a harsh, arid 
      savanna that is just barely suitable for farming and cattle grazing, yet 
      must feed 12 million people. Cyclical droughts and chronic hunger are a 
      way of life. Life expectancy tops out at 46 years. 
      Nor is Niger alone in its troubles. Of the 25 countries at the bottom of 
      the development list, all but two are in Africa. Niger's food crisis -- it 
      is not, despite news reports, a famine yet -- is not even the worst on the 
      continent. Similar problems, involving even larger numbers, exist in 
      Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Darfur and elsewhere. 
      Far from ignoring or playing down its troubles, Niger's government, in 
      cooperation with international aid agencies, sounded the alarm back in 
      November. It provided subsidized grain and other aid from its own stocks, 
      and has apparently made every effort to avert disaster. The world simply 
      failed to respond, leaving the government unable to mount a sufficient aid 
      ''The world has not noticed,'' said Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to 
      the Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general. ''When you get a 
      crisis of this kind in a little known, landlocked country, which is 
      Francophone and hard to reach, the inability to mobilize and galvanize 
      sufficient support in a timely way is huge.'' 
      Of $16 million requested by the United Nations in an appeal for aid, less 
      than a third had been received until about a week ago, when images of 
      starving children began appearing on television. Food distribution is well 
      under way, but precious time was lost, Mr. Malloch Brown said. 
      Niger and its neighbors are textbook cases of what the Columbia University 
      economist Jeffrey D. Sachs calls ''the poverty trap.'' 
      ''When poverty is extreme,'' Mr. Sachs wrote in his recent book, ''The End 
      of Poverty,'' ''the poor do not have the ability -- by themselves -- to 
      get out of the mess.'' 
      The new prescription he advocates for such countries, as he described it 
      in a telephone interview, is a large infusion of aid directed to basic 
      needs like growing more food, providing access to clean drinking water and 
      preventing diseases like malaria. 
      If farmers in Niger got better seeds and fertilizers, he said, they would 
      grow more crops, preventing food shortages in the first place. Children 
      who had safe drinking water would not suffer from diarrhea or its deadly 
      complications, malnourishment and dehydration. Fighting malaria, which 
      debilitates as well as kills, would increase productivity. Good roads 
      would allow rural populations to send produce to market in flush times and 
      let their government and aid agencies know who is in trouble in bad times. 

      Niger may be a democracy, but its government is weak and its tiny budget 
      is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid. It may have a free press, but 
      if literacy is at 17 percent and few can afford radios or televisions, how 
      can a free press safeguard against famine? It may have elections, but if 
      the government has put itself at the mercy of international donors in 
      return for promises of aid, can it be held to account when the world does 
      not live up to its end of the bargain? 
      In the end, the way out of misery for countries like Niger is neither 
      democracy nor increased aid alone, but a blend of the two, said Stephen 
      Devereux, an expert on famine at the University of Sussex in Britain. Mr. 
      Sen's phrase about famine and poverty is often misquoted to leave out the 
      word ''functioning.'' Helping young democracies become functioning nations 
      is probably the only way to inoculate countries like Niger against 
      ''Niger appears to have done everything it could,'' Mr. Devereux said. 
      ''We have to ask ourselves, what do international donors owe Niger in 
      return? If you accept the situation that a country is so poor that it will 
      be dependent on assistance for a long time, the responsibility for 
      preventing famine is shared.'' 

      Photos: Facing Famine -- Hungry children on Monday in Maradi, Niger, left. 
      Outside town on Wednesday, below, drought had left its mark. (Photographs 
      by Schalk van Zuydam/Associated Press)