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May 19, 2010

World Bank Restores Aid to Niger Following February Coup

by Scott Stearns

The World Bank is restoring financial assistance to Niger that was suspended following a February coup. The military government says the aid will help fight hunger in a country where 60 percent of people are facing severe food shortages.

In a letter to military ruler Major Salou Djibo, World Bank regional director Madani Tall said the resumption of $40 million in budgetary assistance comes with it the expectation that the social, economic, and political situation in Niger will be explained to give the national and international community a better understanding of the way forward.

Soldiers took power in a February coup against President Mamadou Tandja, who had grown increasing unpopular since using a constitutional referendum to extend his time in office and sacking both lawmakers and judges who opposed him.

The military government has since vowed to restore Niger to civilian rule within one year.

Government spokesman Mahaman Laouali Dandah welcomed the resumption of World Bank assistance.

Dandah told VOA that the World Bank has always been there for Niger to help in the fight against poverty and the creation of sustainable socio-economic development.

Dandah says it is a decision that everyone in Niger appreciates, and it underlines the efforts of the ruling military council and the government to resolve political differences and restore Niger's place in the international community.

He says the resumption of World Bank assistance will help more than seven million people who need food assistance because of last year's poor rains.

Dandah says it is clear that food security is not forgotten as the World Bank provides assistance across many sectors including the exportation of food and livestock products, the promotion of private sector irrigation and the financial sector. This supports the fight against food insecurity.

This crisis affects more people than the last food shortages in 2005, but UN aid chief John Holmes says the country is better prepared, in part because of better cooperation.

Prime Minister Mahamadou Danda told foreign donors that the government is supplying cereal to the general public at lower costs while supporting free, targeted feeding programs for vulnerable groups.

Prime Minister Danda says these ongoing programs will help Niger fight food insecurity and establish mutual trust among the people to avoid the misunderstandings that were registered during the food crisis of 2005.

Then-president Tandja was hosting a meeting of the Francophone in December of 2005 and played down the severity of the hunger that year.

Prime Minister Danda says Niger needs so badly today the assistance of everyone to face this crisis. He says he hopes he can rely on international donors to allow the government, within a transparent framework, to get more assistance for people and livestock.

World Food Program director for Niger Richard Verbeeck says the change of government has vastly improved the international community's ability to respond to the crisis.  

"In the beginning when we prepared ourselves in response to the crisis, there were some words or some facts that were unsaid," Verbeeck said. "With the new government, I must say that I see a complete different attitude. More open. More eager to advice. More eager to work together. And if makes a difference, that's for sure."

Niger's military government is continuing to push for the resumption of more international assistance. It is sending a delegation to Brussels next week to ask the European Union to renew $450 million of development assistance that was frozen during President Tandja's rule.