Niger food crisis: ineffective response by humanitarian aid system, unable to respond to the emergency

Far from being a natural disaster, this serious food crisis in Niger was predictable. Development policies always deprive part of the population of vital resources. Furthermore, people must pay for medical care and the most disadvantaged cannot afford staple foodstuffs.

Despite the food security initiative, co-managed by the government and institutional donors, committing in writing to assist this population (see appendix for excerpts from the food aid charter), it is clear today that it is incapable of responding effectively to this emergency.

Survey in villages in the district of Keita

During a food security survey conducted in four villages in the district of Keita in late May, MSF discovered that food aid was not reaching those most in need. While the district of Keita (Tahoua province) was supposed to receive 300 tonnes of cereals monthly beginning in November, only 700 tonnes had reached the district by early May - three times less than planned.

In these four villages 60 - 100% of families had not been able to buy millet at a reduced price for two major reasons: lack of money (around 45%) or the distant location of the sale point. Those who were able to buy millet once or twice received 20-70 kilos per family, which amounts to enough food for 4 to 14 days.

Very poor nutritional quality compounds the problem of low quantities of food. During the food security survey, which began in April, nearly half the families interviewed said they ate only one meal a day and that every meal consisted solely of water and millet. This year, the consumption of milk, niebe (beans) and vegetable oil has greatly decreased, while the consumption of wild plants, particularly anza, has risen. This low-nutrient food does not provide nearly enough calories for growing children and for adults working in the fields.

Absence of free food distributions

In order to avoid further destabilising a market which has already been strongly affected by speculation, institutional donors and the government refuse to change strategies and allocate available resources for the free distribution of food in villages with the highest rates of malnutrition.

They acknowledge however that the measures taken are not effective and that a large portion of the population has no access to the food aid that must be paid for. Farm credit is clearly purchased aid because the maximum 300 kilos of millet provided to families during the lean period must be repaid after the harvest.

The food crisis has been officially acknowledged, yet effectively denied, as evidenced by the lack of emergency free food distributions. The government and institutional donors are leaving NGOs to set up this "appropriate method of free, targeted food distributions", while their main preoccupation is to protect the market.

This has not prevented the French ambassador (France was once Niger's major donor) from calling upon the generosity of French people living in Niger to reduce prices (see appendix).

Excerpts from a joint WFP and FEWS NET (CC/SAP) report

The measures implemented by this initiative are insufficient and ineffective. This is acknowledged in the latest report (7-15 June) of the joint WFP and FEWS NET (CC/SAP) mission in charge of supplying food aid:

"Throughout the entire region visited, the mission noted a continuing food crisis related to the populations' limited coping capacity, insufficient resources and the problem of inadequate targeting of the support provided by the government and its food security partners.

At this point, the basic measures taken to alleviate the crisis can be summarised as follows:

  • The sale of cereals at reduced prices, which is in its fourth phase in many of the areas visited. This operation, even though it is welcomed by the affected populations, is considered highly inadequate in terms of the quantity available compared to actual needs and its affordability for poor households;
  • Food-for-work and food-for-cash programs (FFW and CFW), which have the advantage of benefiting all households, reach very few families and provide relatively insufficient quantities of food supplies.
  • Cereal and animal feed banks for livestock are deemed highly efficient but their number and stocks are insufficient.
  • The free distribution of food rations by Médecins Sans Frontières to households with malnourished children under the age of five is an appropriate method of free, targeted distribution".

    But what are the solutions recommended in this same document?

    "The mission noted an availability of basic cereals in the markets. However, their affordability poses a serious problem for particularly poor households, which have reached the limit of their coping strategies, including the sale of livestock, straw, wood and legume pods, moving to another area, gathering of wild plants and consumption of scarce foods, etc.

    "To allow affected populations to devote themselves exclusively to farm work, the mission recommends the continuance, reinforcement and close monitoring of actions undertaken to alleviate the crisis: the sale of cereals and animal feed at reduced prices, food-for-work and cash-for-work programmes, cereal banks and farm credit, all of which should target the most vulnerable households."