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March 30, 2010

Humanitarian Need in Niger Growing

by Scott Stearns

Half the population vulnerable to food shortages; at least $150 million in aid required to meet emergency food needs

Relief officials say Niger needs at least $150 million in international assistance to meet emergency food needs brought on by poor harvests. That estimate is up from $123 million just weeks ago.

With half of Niger's 15 million people already vulnerable to food shortages, relief officials are preparing an emergency action plan to address both general food security and malnutrition among especially vulnerable groups including children and pregnant women.

Niger's new military rulers have spoken publicly about the risk of famine since taking charge in a February coup. That is a clear break from the approach of former president Mamadou Tandja, who remains under house arrest.

But the instability that food shortages can bring in any society could disrupt the military's plans for new elections once politicians agree on a new constitution to replace laws President Tandja used to give himself another three years in office.

Khardiata Lao N'Diaye is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Niger. She says Niger's military rulers clearly understand the risks.

"The return to democratic institutions is one of the key priorities, but also facing the urgent need of the population is crucial in this process. So that is while the de facto authorities, while they are committed to the political process, have also put the humanitarian issue at the top of their priorities," N'Diaye said.

She says a food-secure electorate will be more engaged in the national dialogue about Niger's future.

"This support will go directly to the population to allow them to participate fully in the democratization process," N'Diaye said.

One of the reasons former president Tandja gave for extending his rule was to complete several large projects including a French uranium mine and a Chinese-financed oil refinery. Despite Niger's mineral wealth, it remains near the bottom of the UN's human development index.

Non-governmental organizations in Niger say the country's new military leaders should review all of the Tandja administration's mineral deals. The military has detained several former ministers and public sector chiefs including those in charge of oil and mines.

N'Diaye says longer-term efforts to more equitably distribute the benefits of the country's mineral resources may help resolve structural issues in agricultural production that contribute to food shortages. But the challenge is feeding people now.

"Niger has the potential to reverse its development trends through good governance in the exploitation of its mine resources. I think here we are talking about mid-term issues. But right now, I think the main focus for the UN is to save lives in Niger," N'Diaye said.

Across the Sahel, the UN estimates that poor farmers in Niger, Chad, and northeastern Mali will likely need food assistance at least through the early harvests in August.