Category: Archive

On the brink

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

She’d spent a formative 12 months in that desert nation; now she’s back as part of an international effort aimed at preventing it from tipping into catastrophic famine.
“Concern has been here for two and a half years doing an education program,” said McCabe, speaking from Tahoua, a town with a population of 50,000. “But now we’ve shifted onto an emergency program for children under five under who are malnourished.
“Food is being delivered from the UN, from UNICEF and we flew in 40 tons of our own food and supplies last week, so that we could get started. We set up a distribution center so that we can feed up to 6,000 children every month,” she said.
Though Africa and its problems topped the world agenda in early July at the G8 summit, it took BBC footage of starving children to focus attention specifically on Niger.
About 3.6 million of the country’s 12.9 million people are reportedly affected by shortages, with 2.5 million said to be “in urgent need of food aid.” About 800,000 of the latter category are children.
“Niger needs help today, not tomorrow,” Giancarlo Cirri, the director for the World Food Program in Niger, told the press. “I need to believe that the international community, having seen the images on television, is now rushing to help save lives.”
Phil Bloomer, Oxfam’s campaign director, said: “The world waits until children are dying before acting to save them.”
There have been warning signs for a year and yet Western governments are just now scrambling to deal with a worsening situation in the second poorest country on earth. A furious debate has begun about how the world community can be better informed about shortages and better able to deal more effectively with food crises as they arise. There have been calls for a $500 million or $1 billion UN emergency relief fund that could be used to respond to emergencies quickly.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan supports the idea, as does Hilary Benn, Britain’s international development secretary.
Meanwhile, the people of Niger, who have a precarious relationship with nature at the best times, are facing into a very trying period.
“It is a tough place. Most people live on what they can grow in the short period after rain and before fertile ground turns to hard, barren, cracked earth,” wrote Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society in the London Times last week. “When that food runs out, people turn to their goats and cattle to get through the bad times. Every year, just before the unreliable rainy season [August], it gets tougher.”
Last year, however, the harvest was bad, and food stocks were then devastated by invasions of locusts. The UN issued warnings in November, March and May that the country would hit crisis point this summer. The March message included an appeal for governments to donate $16 million; but that only garnered $1 million. The May warning attached an appeal for $30 million in May and that netted $10 million.
Last year, the democratic government of Niger itself said that there would be likely be a major problem in 2005. In June, however, when a few thousand people marched in the capital Niamey demanding free food, officials said such a plan was “foolish,” and stuck closely to market principles.
The situation is being classed by international bodies, now, as a food crisis. “There are fatalities, but it’s not a famine situation,” McCabe said.
One newspaper has said that at least 750 children have died so far in centers run by the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres, and speculate that greater numbers have perished on their way to help. Some reports suggest that of the 800,000 children said to be in danger, 150,000 of them are already severely malnourished because of the crisis.
“Malnutrition rates are up to 20 to 30 percent of children, which is a lot higher than the average emergency. Ten percent is the usual.
“We’ve been finding different levels of malnutrition in villages,” said McCabe, who grew up in Coventry in England.
Some media reports suggested that the bigger agencies can’t cope in certain areas and can only take on the most severe cases if they can be saved.
But McCabe said: “We treat every child who is malnourished, according to international protocol. So we don’t turn away a child who is malnourished.
“It would be very helpful if people could support what’s going on here. Food is coming in, but more is needed,” she added.
McCabe, whose parents are from Counties Leitrim and Longford. (“They went back to Longford about 10 years ago. That’s where home is now,” she said) first volunteered for Concern while on a short-term trip to New York. Her work evolved into a full-time job, based in the agency’s Manhattan offices, that lasted four years. Then she got some experience in the field; her stint in Niger was followed by four months’ work with Concern’s emergency team in Darfur.
Back in Niger, McCabe is now working with about a dozen others in the Concern team, among them Dubliners Phil O’Kelly and Jimmy O’Connor, who flew out last week to help with logistics, and the country director, Nigel Tricks, based in Niamey.
“It’s a mostly rural community; 80 percent live in the countryside around, and it’s very dry, arid part of the country,” McCabe said of the Tahoua region. “It’s dusty, but muddy when it rains.
“At the moment it’s the middle of the rainy season, so there is some greenery and some hope of a half decent harvest, which is great,” she added.
But aid agencies warn, too, that the risk of water-borne diseases spreading is now increased and also that food must be distributed to certain parts of the country before roads become impassible.
“Telecommunications are very difficult,” McCabe said. “But we bought mobiles and it’s pretty amazing that they work
“We’re getting on very well. They’re a great people,” she added. “It’s a very serious situation, but there’s a great sense of purpose.”
Concern is working alongside MSF, Action Against Hunger, the Red Cross and other NGOs. It also works through existing government health infrastructures. In a sense, the Irish agency is continuing its education mission to Niger. “When we move on, there’ll be people who’ll know how to deal with malnourished children,” McCabe said.

Down the road, too, there’ll be questions about how the situation became a crisis.
Did the UN’s World Food Program make enough noise? Did the West fail another yet country caught in the poverty trap? Niger asked for help in 2004, but did its officials use every opportunity to get the word out? And if not, were they constrained by national pride or diplomatic inexperience?
President Mamadou Tandja is believed not to have alluded to a potential famine when visiting with President George W. Bush at the White House earlier this year. And Britain’s minister Benn said that a crisis was not mentioned when he visited Niger in February.
“The current system does not work. We need a better system,” Benn said.
“Some questions might be asked once the crisis is over,” McCabe said. “It’s quite a complex situation; there’s not a simple answer to that.”
She added that for now Concern must concentrate on the task at hand and was confident that they would see tangible results from their efforts.
“It’s pretty early days; we’re just getting started,” McCabe said. “MSF have been here a long time, and they’re seeing effects.
“We’re really gearing up now, and we’ll be reaching thousands of children. In the next few weeks, we’ll start to see a definite impact.”
For further information about Concern call 212-557-8000, or visit the website www.concernusa.org.

Country profile: Niger

Capital: Niamey
Head of state: Pres. Mamadou Tandja
Population: 12.9 million (UN, 2005)
Area: 489,000 sq. miles. A landlocked country in the Sahel, or edge of the Sahara. It borders Libya, Algeria, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali.
Main Languages: French (official), Hausa, Djerma
Ethnic groups: Hausa (56 percent); Djerma (22); Fula (8.5); Tuareg (8); others (5.5)
Religion: Islam (80 percent); indigenous beliefs
Life Expectancy: 46 years
Infant mortality: Officially 121 per 1,000 live births, though an estimated one in four children don’t survive past their 5th birthday
Literacy: 18 percent
Main exports: Uranium; livestock. Ranked the second least developed nation in the world.
History. In medieval times, it was part of empires centered in what are now Nigeria, Chad and Mali. In the 18th century, Tuaregs from the north established dominance. Then, in the late 19th century, France began to incorporate it into its empire. The population was granted French citizenship in 1946 and a measure of self-rule, but independence was attained in 1960. The Republic of Niger was ruled by military dictatorship until a democratization process of the 1990s. Tandja was elected in 1999, the year a new constitution was approved, and reelected in 2004.

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