On the second day of her visit to the drought-hit country of Niger, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin met families who are providing for themselves by working on projects that will protect them from hunger down the line. Travelling alongside UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the WFP chief sent back this blog post to tell us about her trip.
This morning we woke, bright and early, and by 7 am were on our way to the airport. I feel a sense of pride as we walk toward our plane as I see the WFP logo emblazened under the pilot’s window. The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP Aviation, is truly the world’s leading air service when it comes to saving lives. Some 80 percent of its 240 destinations are in places which commercial airlines consider ‘no-fly’ zones.
As we settle into our seats, my travelling partner Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says: "You know, I should be a frequent flyer!" He opens up the UNHAS brochure in the seat pocket next to him and shows me that UNHCR is the second biggest user of UNHAS, among UN agencies.
Two hours later we land in Maradi, east of Niamey. Maradi shares 125km of its border with Nigeria. People here have been particularly affected by pest infestations which caused heavy crop losses; this, coupled with high food prices and the return of migrant workers scared away by instability in Nigeria, has made the situation worse. The plight of the pastoralists is very worrying, especially the mothers and babies. Acute malnutrition rates were an alarming 21.4 percent among children aged 6-23 months last year, and it’s probably getting worse.
We are greeted by the impressive Governor, Sidi Mohamed, who has been working closely with WFP on establishing its operations in his region. He joins us as we travel 12 km south of Maradi to Safo, the department of Madarounfa, where we are running a ‘Cash for Work’ programme. Here there are about 72 villages with 6,400 habitants.
We walk through a field of holes, each with a semicircular row of sand on one side. The holes have two purposes. They help the ground absorb water and also improve the quality of the soil, because the farmers sprinkle fertilisers inside the half moons. The farmers have their own seeds, or else receive them from
the Government or FAO. They plant trees and grass inside the half moon. This stops the erosion. It takes time, or course. In five to ten years you see the difference, they tell me, but it does depend on the rain.
How many years have they been doing this? More than 20, I am told. They explain that as a result of the higher water table, there are now even some wells for the animals. They have a local committee to manage the site. This means there's a sense of ownership amongst the community, which is encouraging.
I walk over to talk to one of the men who are queuing up to get their money (see right photo) I ask him what he will do with the money. "I will buy food, some millet," he says. "Why don’t you give the money to your wife?" I question. "Because I have two! I will buy the food and give it to them!" he responds laughing. It was extremely positive, and a little surprising, to hear.
We need to do this at a bigger scale, and more consistently, the Governor tells us. He’s right. No doubt about it. WFP aims to continue support to forward-thinking projects like this with its food and cash assistance. They build resilience and will keep hunger at bay in the future.
Next stop is Zabon Moucho, in the department of Ague, where WFP is
distributing special nutritious food to mothers and small children. The site caters to 15 villages and it currently treating 856 children between 6-23 months and 274 breast-feeding mothers. It’s a critical centre because there’s 60 percent chronic malnutrition here and the GAM rate is at 12 percent.
“We have the best economy in the country but the highest malnutrition rates, something is not working,” says the Governor as he holds a young baby in his arms “We have to figure it out.”
It’s one of the best treatment programmes in the region, a huge investment in terms of resources and products. There’s also an outreach programme attached, run by our partner CARE International.
It’s great that we have this treatment programme for malnourished children, I think. But the question is: what happens before they become malnourished? It seems like we're waiting for children to become malnourished. The government is saying we have to tackle the problem before it gets to this stage. I whole-heartedly agree.
One of the people receiving food is Aisha, aged 15, with a one-year-old baby (see left photo). She tells me she only went to school for one year. Aisha is so young, and again I am reminded of the many other issues that surface when we try to address just one. It’s like peeling back the skin of an onion.
Next stop is Kagadama village, which has 677 habitants and where WFP is looking to start work. The government is helping the village by selling subsidized cereals. The problem is that not all the people have money.
Hunger is biting hard here and the people are reducing the number of meals per day. They are also leaving to find work. Harvests have been bad for four years.
We go to speak to the people of the village, to ask them what they need. The Governor urges everyone to "please tell them the truth!"
I am proud to be here, I tell the villagers. “I know the harvest has been bad. But I need to know how you are coping. What are you doing for food? You must tell me your stories, so I can tell the world, so I can get help for you.”
Through our subsequent conversations we discover that the boys from around here often go to Nigeria to find work. But they usually come back here because they are not welcome over the border.
Apart from this, it seems people are able to find a few activities that generate enough money to buy food. One of them is cutting wood, but of course this puts pressure on the environment.
One woman tells us that she earns a little money by going to Maradi to sell the fruit that grows on local trees. Normally it’s only the animals that eat this fruit. But, given the hard times, they have taken to drying it – to make a powder that they can give to their children. They bring a sack of these dried fruit to show me. I take one, its hard and dark brown in colour. It breaks like a biscuit in my hand and has a strong bitter smell. As I look at these fruit I wonder how bad things are that mothers are feeding their children the same food that the animals eat.
WFP is desperately needed here, that much is clear. Like yesterday, where the mothers were forced to feed their children toxic berries, here they are forced to feed them the food the animals eat.
It is painful to take in, and completely unacceptable.
(All photos by Rein Skullerud)