What makes a world class crisis: Niger's 'invisible' emergency

In an article first published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, former WFP nutritionist Patrick Webb argues that Niger's ongoing hunger crisis shows the classic symptons of a "silent emergency".

In an article first published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, former WFP nutritionist Patrick Webb argues that Niger's ongoing hunger crisis shows the classic symptons of a "silent emergency".

In the fly-blown sands of Niger, there are no earthquakes or surging seas. No townscapes of blasted rubble or guerrillas in the hills. This time, it's just the familiar sight of malnourished children: hundreds of thousands of them slowly, but surely, dying.

The situation in Niger is a humanitarian catastrophe. An estimated 3.6 million people are facing a serious shortage of food; almost half a million children are seriously malnourished.

The tsunamis that hit South Asia at Christmas were also a major disaster, killing nearly 300,000 people and rendering millions more in need of emergency aid. Yet, the differences are striking.

Although forces of nature were at play in both cases, drought does not generate the same sense of shock as an earthquake. Locusts do not seem the catastrophe that is a crushing wave. Niger is the archetypal "invisible" emergency - where out of sight really is out of mind.

West Africa's current crisis is not new; it's merely an escalation of conditions that have long existed. Drought and locusts are bad enough, but these biblical afflictions aggravated pitiful conditions that locals have endured for decades. Niger is one of the poorest places on Earth, with mind-numbingly low levels of literacy and rampant child and maternal mortality. Even in a "normal" year, one out of four children dies of malnutrition-related causes.

While its democratically elected government has tried to increase farm output and trade, Niger remains heavily indebted, shackled by minimal internal investment, deteriorating environmental conditions, and a lack of geopolitical significance. The only time Niger nudged its way recently into Western consciousness was its fleeting association with unsubstantiated allegations that Iraq's Saddam Hussein tried to procure uranium there.

Yet, today's tragedy did not arrive unannounced: The failure of successive rainy seasons - and harvests - were closely monitored, as was the worst locust plague in 15 years. What's more, nutrition surveys by the United Nations' World Food Program and the charity Helen Keller International showed frighteningly high levels of child malnutrition. More than 60 per cent of children surveyed displayed the chronic form that results in stunted growth, while rates of the acute form - known as wasting - were also escalating.

Early warning systems began to sound their alarms last fall, as did the national government, but the world looked elsewhere. In February, the World Food Program appealed for $3-million to feed half a million people in Niger with a view to heading off disaster. Silence. Not a single pledge was made by a member of the Group of Eight or any other government for three months, until, at the end of May, one small European country contributed $320,000.

Now, thanks to the international media, emergency funds are pouring in, while relief workers on the ground are frantically setting up feeding centres.

But it is far too late for many Nigerians, especially the youngest; meantime, costs have skyrocketed because needs have escalated. As well, the rainy season, sure to complicate distribution, is fast approaching. Even with the surge in attention, the World Food Program still had less than 50 per cent of the resources it needs at the start of August.

The lack of reaction to this long-predicted crisis, especially when Africa has been the focus of recent political attention, is morally indefensible. It is also a collective failure - not so much of the emergency system, but of the lack of development that allows millions of children in the developing world to die each year of preventable causes such as hunger, measles or diarrhea - a situation we frankly cannot imagine in the West.

Most of those deaths do not occur in emergencies; they occur in relatively stable countries unaffected by dramatic man-made or natural events. What those countries have in common is deep and debilitating hunger and poverty.

The high rates of child malnutrition in Niger signalled a long-running "silent emergency" that laid the foundation for future disaster. When the locusts descended, that disaster emerged full force. It takes little to push a people over the edge, when half of their children are already malnourished.

It is in all of our interests to reach the vulnerable in time - well before, those children die of preventable causes in "normal times." There are many more Nigers lurking within the suffering of children in the poor world. We just don't see them yet.