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Impoverished Niger Hosts International Games

The impoverished country of Niger, which is just recovering from a famine and is possibly facing another one, is hosting a costly international sports competition of French-speaking countries. Civil society leaders who say they do not believe there should be a link between the two issues, still hope the games will not distract from relief efforts.

More than 2,000 athletes, artists, and musicians are in Niger's capital, Niamey, for the opening of the Fifth Francophone Games, which bring in participants from more than 50 countries throughout the French-speaking world.

This is the first time the games are being held in West Africa. The head of the event's organizing committee, Seriba Mahaman, says being chosen to host the games is a great honor for Niger.

"The people of Niger have worked hard to ensure the games are a success," he said. "They are happy that the event is finally ready to open."

Organizers say funding for the games comes in equal parts from Niger's government and the member states that make up the international organization of French-speaking countries. Niger has spent millions of dollars on construction and preparations.

Mr. Mahaman says the event has served as an instrument for development.

"There has been much investment in Niamey," he said. "Hotels and roads have been improved. An entire neighborhood, complete with hospitals and police stations, has been built to accommodate participants and officials."

Just a few months ago, Niger was suffering from widespread food shortages and millions of people, mainly children, were facing starvation. A massive international relief effort helped improve the situation.

The United Nations' World Food Program is now warning of another impending crisis and is appealing to donors for $19 million to help prevent it.

Civil society leader Mahaman Ahamessou says the spectacle of the games, which attract world class athletes and receive international media attention, should be something in which the people of Niger can take pride. But he says, they must not be used to hide the reality of the country's precarious situation.

"If the government does not take emergency steps immediately, then the country will be facing another, even worse, famine," said Mahaman Ahamessou.

Niger's government has disputed the warnings from the U.N. food agency that another crisis is imminent. Earlier this year, it accused the world body of overstating the extent of food shortages to get more donations. It now says that, due to a bumper harvest, there is currently a food surplus in the country.

But a member of the government's food-crisis committee, Mustapha Kadi, says while there is a surplus of around 21,000 tons of grain, that extra food is rapidly disappearing.

"Buyers from neighboring countries are coming to Niger and exporting its grain at cheap prices," said Mustapha Kadi. "As a result, he says, the country's food security is far from assured. "

The games are held every four years in a new country. The fifth edition of the event, will last 10 days. Participants will compete in sporting events including basketball, football, and boxing, as well as cultural competitions like sculpture and photography.