May 7, 2010 | By Roger Thurow

Urgent Reminders from Niger

The looming famine in Niger is a gripping reminder of the urgency of the task at hand: ending hunger through agriculture development.

Niger is one of the least developed countries in the world, and its impoverished agriculture sector is exhibit A.  The country and various development agencies are struggling to hold back the relentless encroachment of the desert with simple, innovative efforts to re-green the Sahel, while also working to increase production and enhance the nutritional quality of staple foods grown in the few arable zones.

Chronic hunger stalks the land, exacerbated at regular intervals by drought and shifting market conditions (currently, staple food prices are high and the market price for cattle, an important source of household income, is low).  The government of Niger says the rate of severe food insecurity in the country has tripled since last year.  According to humanitarian agency Action Against Hunger, the government estimated that nearly one million children are moderately malnourished and another 200,000 have severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition.  Even if those children survive, their physical and mental development will likely be as stunted as the nation’s.  The government assessment showed that, at the beginning of the year, household foodstocks had already been depleted for about 20% of the population.  It estimated some 7.8 million people (more than half the nation’s population) will be forced to cope without food reserves for at least six months before the October harvest.

The World Food Program has more than doubled the number of people it routinely feeds in Niger, providing food to 2.3 million people.  Still, that leaves millions of others foraging on their own.

As the hunger spreads, the WFP says it is working against time to distribute its aid.  It is buying most of the needed food from neighboring countries to shorten the lead time to deliver food to the West African country, which is normally about four months.

This provides a second reminder: local and regional purchase of food aid is a vital tool in relieving hunger emergencies.

The current Niger crisis adds to the growing body of evidence that the U.S. food aid policy – which mandates that assistance must be American grown food shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels – needs to be reformed to also provide cash aid for such local purchases when famine flares.

“We need to move quickly,” says Thoma Yanga, WFP’s regional director for West Africa.  (In addition to speed, local purchase also provides market incentive for African farmers to increase their production of food to feed fellow Africans.)

Yet, despite the mounting evidence, local purchase continues to be opposed by some in Congress and the agriculture industry who insist on “keeping food in food aid”, as is their mantra.

The news from Niger of children on the verge of starvation brings a third reminder, this one more personal, of young lives cut short: This May is the third anniversary of the death of one remarkable girl, Anafghat Ayouba.

Anafghat, a slight twig of a girl, was smiling from a hospital bed in the capital city, Niamey, when I first met her in 2004.  She was recovering from a large fistula in her bladder which had opened up during four days of labor in childbirth at the age of 15 (she was given into marriage at age 11).  The fistula had been repaired by American doctors brought to Niger by the nonprofit International Organization for Women and Development Inc., founded by Barbara and Ira Margolies of New York.

As she recovered, Anafghat cheerfully told me she was eager to return to her village on the edge of the Sahara so she could go back to school.  In Niger, particularly in the rural areas, girls are required to leave school when they marry, and many are given into marriage by their families by the time they are 15.

But that wouldn’t stop Anafghat, not after what she had been through.  In the hospital, she turned to her father, a goat herder from the Sahara, and said, “Father, you must promise me that when we go home I can go to school.  And you must promise that my sisters won’t get married so early.”

“I want to be a doctor,” she insisted, “and be an important woman.”

Several months after her surgery, Anafghat made good on her promise, returning to the third grade, where she had left off.  She then set out to change the practice of early marriage and she became an example and advocate for girls’ education.  She was preparing to take the tests to enter secondary school when she died suddenly from complications of an infection (cause unknown) on May 25, 2007.

I thought of Anafghat eagerly studying French and science in her family’s little mud-brick hut as I read a New York Times dispatch from Niger this week.  Adam Nossiter reported that, “Thousands of children are being pulled out of schools because parents have left their villages to search for food, and a handful have closed.”  And, for those children fortunate enough to still be in school, I know that many of them are suffering, too, as malnutrition saps their desire and ability to learn.

Anafghat would be concerned over the soaring child malnutrition.   Above all, she would be distressed that it was interrupting education.

That thought prompts a fourth urgent reminder from Niger’s current crisis: hunger undermines all aspects of development.  It undermines health.  It subverts education.  It drains the economy.

It’s a fundamental equation: Develop agriculture, end hunger, develop nations.

(Photo by Jane Hahn/The New York Times)


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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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