The famine in Niger has been approaching for months, but little or nothing had been done either by the government or the international community to avert it. Aid workers are complaining that it took dramatic television pictures of emaciated children and death from hunger to get relief going. Joe Bavier in Abidjan went to Niger for VOA and tells us more about the famine that could have been avoided.
A crew of about a half dozen workers loads the cavernous hold of a cargo plane with sacks of enriched flour as the sun beats down on the tarmac of Abidjan's international airport.
Ivory Coast's commercial capital has been a staging point for the United Nations' World Food Program emergency relief flights to famine-stricken Niger. And the operation seems a model of international cooperation.
The plane's crew is Russian, based in Italy. The thousands of sacks that make up its 46 metric ton payload are marked "Aid of France" with a point of origin given as Durban, South Africa.
In the last month, international aid to help stave off the food crisis has been flooding into Niger. The WFP alone expects to distribute free food to more than one point eight million Nigeriens before the end of this month.
But human rights activist Moustapha Kadi is bitter. He says the government knew locust infestations coupled with a rainy season that ended too soon would produce a poor harvest, but didn't do anything about it, and nor did the donor community.
He says the government realized there would be a cereal deficit of around 220,000 tons. Unfortunately, he says, the international community didn't react, and then the government avoided the issue.
Last November, Niger's government issued an urgent appeal for emergency food aid. The next month, the World Food Program (WFP) informed its executive board, composed of representatives from donor countries, of the expected shortfall.
In March, the U.N. and Niger's government asked for about $7 million. That amount was later upped to $16 million. But even though the situation on the ground was rapidly worsening, Stephanie Savariaud of WFP's Niamey office says there was almost no response.
"We only had our first contribution, which was from Luxembourg and which was $320,000, we only received that in May. The lack of funds was a problem," she explained.
That all changed when media attention began focusing on Niger in mid-July. The initial goal of $16 million was reached in little over a week.
But money has not been the only obstacle. Distribution has also been problematic.
Chapaatou Souley sobs as she is cradled by her mother Laure, in the admissions tent of a Doctors Without Borders emergency feeding center in Maradi. The three-year-old girl weighs just over 5.5 kilograms.
In their village, Chapaatou's mother says, there is nothing left to eat. She, like thousands of mothers from the surrounding countryside, has come to Maradi in the hope of finding food. The same day, in another part of the city, a child is trampled to death when thousands of women with their children massed outside an aid agency where free rations were to be handed out.
But in the city's main market, dozens of large sacks of rice are stacked inside Idi Karoa's shop. The existence of such stocks is one of the reasons the World Food Program has yet to term the crisis in Niger a famine.
What is a famine, Mr. Karoa asks rhetorically. The man who has no money, he says, can't buy food at the market, and he'll be hungry.
And few people in Niger's rural areas have money to spend. The price of a head of cattle has dropped to just a few dollars. A 25 kilogram bag of rice now costs the equivalent of about $35 in Mr. Karoa's shop.
Niger's government says it has been subsidizing the grain market to keep prices low. But prices in some parts of the country have risen by as much as a third on rice, millet and flour, leading some civil society leaders to accuse the government of not doing enough.
Niger's President Mamadou Tandja has accused the United Nations and independent aid organizations of exaggerating the gravity of the situation in his country in order to secure donations. He admitted there are food shortages in some parts of the country, but said the people of Niger are well fed and there is no famine.
The WFP mission in Niger says it is not exaggerating the food crisis. It says it is using the government's own figures in saying 2.5 million people in Niger are facing starvation.
The head of the Niger mission of Doctors Without Borders-France (MSF), Johanne Sekkenes says Niger's government and the U.N. aid system have been too worried about preserving long-term development strategies and both are to blame for not doing more to stop the crisis months ago.
"The situation was clear to everyone," she said. "A well-adapted response to a food crisis would have been to distribute the food for free."
Instead, what was intended as emergency aid has been sold to the people of Niger at subsidized prices.
"I see no logic in that," she added. "We could have avoided the situation we have today. It's too late for some of these people."
Free distribution of food rations in the areas worst affected by famine began this week.