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Aid Agency Disappointed by Reaction to Niger Famine

  • Joe Bavier

A U.N. humanitarian organization is blaming donor countries for doing too little to help relief efforts in Niger. A famine there is threatening the lives of a third of the population, but the aid group says it has received only a fraction of the funding it asked for months ago.

Niger has suffered during the past year from little rainfall, locust infestations, and poor harvests. The result, predicted months ago by international aid organizations, is a famine that is now threatening about 2.5 million Nigeriens.

Journalist Ousmane Toudou has visited some of the worst affected areas.

"Its a truly catastrophic situation for the people of Niger," he said. "The crisis is unprecedented."

And those suffering the most are children, he says.

"There are four-year-old children with faces that look like old men," he said. "They are starving. Their bellies are swollen. Their eyes are sunken."

Despite early calls for emergency funding by the U.N. Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, officials from the relief body say the response has been meager.

The deputy head of the U.N. agency's West Africa office, Ute Kollies, says they have received less than $6 million of the $30 million.

"If you look at what is needed to help and save a severely malnourished child, about $80, I do think that the international community, and, as a matter of fact, I think anybody who could assist, should assist," she said.

Ms. Kollies says, the current situation is extremely precarious, especially for children.

"Jean Zeigler, the special rapporteur on the right to food, was recently in Niger and he found children that normally weigh between six and seven kilograms are now weighing three kilograms," she said. "He has seen in one of the centers 14 children die out of 61 that were severely malnourished."

As bad as things are now, Ms. Kollies says, they will get even worse if a serious effort is not made on the part of donor countries.

"We have to act as soon as possible," she said. "And any donation will be immediately used to either replenish the cereals that are needed and the distribution to the most vulnerable."

Until six weeks ago, OCHA chief Jan Egeland said earlier this week, the emergency relief fund had not received a single pledge.

Some humanitarian aid experts blame over-funding of humanitarian efforts following last December's tsunami disaster for a current unwillingness on the part of donor nations to contribute. They say, much of the funding that had been destined for African relief programs was diverted to tsunami relief.

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