"Spare change" would make a huge different to hungry in Niger & Mali

Published on 22 June 2005

Dakar - In advance of the international donor countries meeting for the G8 at Gleneagles, Scotland, WFP warns that less than US$10 million could tilt the balance from despair to hope for the most vulnerable victims of the current food crisis in two of the world\'s poorest countries: Niger and Mali.


DAKAR - In advance of the international donor countries meeting for the G8 at Gleneagles, Scotland, the United Nations World Food Programme said today that less than US$10 million could tilt the balance from despair to hope for the most vulnerable victims of the current food crisis in two of the world's poorest countries: Niger and Mali.

A lethal combination of locusts and drought has created pockets of severe need in the two Sahel countries. But to date, WFP has received only one third (35 percent) of the US$11 million required to fund its emergency operations.

The most immediate and obvious victims of the current crisis are children, whose frail malnourished bodies have been arriving at feeding centres in disturbing numbers in the worst affected areas.

A total of US$7.2 million (US$5.8 million for Mali and US$1.4 million for Niger) is still required immediately to ensure people make it through the next three months before they harvest again in October.

"The amount we are seeking to meet the immediate needs of some of the world's poorest people is spare change compared with the cost of many other operations, and yet we find ourselves banging the drum in their name," said Jamie Wickens, WFP's Associate Director for Operations based in Rome, who is currently visiting Dakar. "Niger and Mali need help today, not tomorrow."

"At a time when the G8 countries are finally talking seriously about lifting sub-Saharan Africa out of debt and impoverishment, here is a perfect example of how the rich world can make a very practical difference. One of the first rungs on the ladder of development is lifting the poorest of the poor out of hunger," Wickens said.

Locusts and Drought

The worst invasion of locusts in 15 years combined with a season of poor rains last year have contributed to the food crisis across the Sahel, despite a regional harvest that was better than expected. In the worst affected regions, food prices have rocketed. Many people have left rural areas in search of work in the towns at a time when crops should be planted; important assets such as livestock are being sold off to buy food.

A nutrition survey conducted in Niger in January suggested as many as 350,000 children under the age of five could be suffering from malnutrition. More recent surveys by Médecins sans Frontières corroborate these findings and point to a deteriorating situation, typical of a war zone. As many as 800,000 children under five are now thought to be going hungry.

The situation in Mali, which has received even less international attention, is equally stark. Some 1.1 million poor farmers are estimated to be short of food. Recent nutrition surveys undertaken by Oxfam-UK and Action Contre la Faim in northern Mali found a significant increase in severe malnutrition among the pastoralist population, particularly young children.

WFP Response

In both countries, WFP is mainly providing food in return for work on projects designed to help farmers rehabilitate their land and improve future productivity. WFP has increased food distributions to combat disturbing levels of child malnutrition and will do more if further contributions are made.

Free distributions have been reserved for only the most acute cases. One group to benefit was the settlement of Timtaghene in Mali, whose 250 inhabitants awoke on 10 June after a night of heavy rains to discover that 559 goats and sheep as well as seven camels had perished - almost all their capital assets. Animals across the region are desperate for fodder and in very poor condition.

The first harvests in the region are not due until October, leaving a yawning three-month gap during which people have little or no food stocks to fall back on.

Poverty spiral

Food shortages and associated malnutrition are a recurring problem in Mali and Niger; both are among the countries now scheduled for complete debt cancellation by the G8. WFP is working closely with both governments, especially to build up Mali's national cereal stocks which are being rapidly depleted by the current crisis.

The annual battle simply to feed their people remains a huge obstacle to both Niger and Mali climbing out of poverty and gaining a firm foothold on the development ladder.

"It is absolutely vital to bring help over the next three months to those who need it most," said Wickens. "If we fail now, we risk seeing both countries slip deeper down the poverty spiral, with few if any means to combat future shocks."

Photographs taken in Niger are available from WFP's Photo Unit - contact Rein Skullerud on rein.skullerud@wfp.org

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency; each year, WFP provides food aid to an average of 90 million people, including 56 million hungry children, in more than 80 countries.

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