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Niger Famine Spotlights Infrastructure Issues

Although the president of Niger recently said there is no famine in his country, the U.N. World Food Program sees it differently, estimating that more than 2.5 million Nigerians are at high risk of severe malnutrition. It is appealing for nearly $60 million of food aid to combat the food crisis.

Whether it's called a food shortage or famine, the larger questions are: how did conditions become so desperate and what are the long-term solutions?

At an emergency medical center in the village of Dakoro in Niger, a woman is refusing all food or treatment.

"They all died," says the woman about three of her children who recently starved to death. The fourth is in critical condition.

The world is now responding to images of starving children in Niger with an outpouring of aid and assistance. But was this tragedy avoidable?

"For them, increasing agriculture production is not a priority,” according to Sanoussi Jakou, leader of Niger's opposition party Al Umat. He says the government ignored the problem to avoid public criticism and the government has been sending mixed signals.

Nigerien President Mamadou Tanja recently said there is no famine in Niger because there is plenty of food for sale on the streets of the capital Niamey.

But Niger's Agriculture Minister Moussa Labo says his government has been asking for assistance for months. "Since November the government made the international community aware of the need to provide support to Niger."

Humanitarian organizations, like Doctors without Borders and the United Nations Children Fund, say they too have been calling for increased aid. But some here say relief efforts may have been delayed by the both the government's and the international community's insistence on adhering to market reform policies.

They fear that flooding the streets with free food could make the country more dependent on aid in the future. But the high cost of grain as a result of the drought has left many in dire straits.

Nomadic people are leaving Niger hoping for a better deal elsewhere to trade their livestock for grain. But poor farmers have nowhere to go.

Oumarou Janbiri says he lost everything in the drought and does not even have enough money to buy seed for this year's crop. "I have nothing. What am I to do?" He doesn't know how he will provide for his family. He has three wives and 21 children.

Economist Chako Cherif, with the University of Niamey, says Mr. Janbiri's large family is also part of the problem in Niger, a county that in the best of times does not produce enough food to feed all its people. Breaking the cycle of poverty, Mr. Cherif says, will require both increasing food production and curbing population growth. "Because it is a very very deep paradigm shift. We have to change our attitudes. Government. Civil Society."

But now with so many children at risk all sides agree that they must address the immediate needs of the poor in Niger before developing long-term solutions.