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New Ideas Emerge to Fight West African Hunger

  • Nico Colombant

New ideas are being thought out to help millions of people facing famine in the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa.Some ideas seem like wishful thinking, but others are intriguing, such as borrowing ideas from the volatile world of investing.

Locust invasions and erratic rains have destroyed grazing land, and led to crop failure in areas stretching from northern Senegal to Chad, leaving millions in need of urgent food aid.

Regional humanitarian coordinator Nick Ireland, from the British group Oxfam, says the worst affected are in small, hard to reach areas.

"Certainly, the more northern regions of Mali, Niger, also pockets in Mauritania," he said, "but it's worth noting that malnutrition by it's very nature often comes in pockets, and it's often these communities, living on the fringes of the desert, who are very mobile in their nature, that have been the most affected in this particular period."

He says this is why large aid groups like the U.N. World Food Program need the millions of dollars they are asking for.

"They have a very key role to play, in terms of the food supply, in the seed, or agricultural inputs in these countries, and the appeals that they launched after failure of harvests," he said. "They will themselves say that they've been warning of these problems since last October, but have really fallen on deaf ears, which has left them in a very difficult position."

Given this shortfall of aid, Niger has turned within. Protesters asked for free food, while non-governmental organizations called for free seeds.

Instead, Niger's government has come up with the idea of food loans. Farmers are given bags of corn and cereal, which they are being asked to repay, after their next harvest. Government ministers, meanwhile, have pledged to donate money out of their own pockets to help the worst-affected areas in what they are calling a "charity starts at home" program.

But given Niger's poverty and its lack of infrastructure, Mr. Ireland says, it is inconceivable the country can end hunger without help.

"If one puts it into context, Niger is ranked second-to-last on the human development index," he said. "I think that it would be fair to say that there really aren't the resources within the country to be able to respond to the needs, the massive needs, which [are] present at the moment."

The urgent need has led cereal- and corn-sellers to hoard their stocks even more than usual, taking prices to all-time highs.

An official in charge of Mali's early warning system for malnutrition, Mary Diallo, says countries should cooperate to fix lower prices.

He says Mali has been hurt by the war in Ivory Coast, which usually supplies much of its corn.

Other major producers, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, have stopped all exports of their cereals, because of fears of shortages in their own countries, driving prices even higher.

Mr. Diallo has been trying to fine-tune the so-called early warning system, which was put in place nearly 20 years ago in Mali, and other countries.

He says, like all major projects in the Sahel, the resources are not there to make them work. Because of this, his indicators of malnutrition are often less alarming than they should be. Even if they are on target, he says, there isn't much the government can do, besides informing donors of the extent of the problem.

Some ideas, which would need long-term funding, but haven't been tried on a large-scale include cloud-seeding to stimulate rain, and working to stop desertification. This seems expensive and unrealistic given current donor fatigue.

But a proposal from the World Food Program is generating excitement among those involved in the battle against hunger.

An official in charge of business planning at the U.N. body, Richard Wilcox, says he is trying to launch a type of market trading system that will allow investors to bet against the weather.

That would allow stock and commodity traders in London or Chicago to hedge against certain climate patterns in countries like Niger and Mali.

The system would be designed to have money available for affected countries as soon as rainfall data suggests that widespread food shortages were likely, or that locusts were about to lay eggs. This would in turn reap the necessary funds for aid agencies, which, hunger experts agree, remain the only ones capable of mounting a proper crisis response.

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