Up to 9 million people face extreme hunger over the coming year after low rainfall and poor harvests have blighted the region. In a statement to the media, Seydou Keita of Mali (who plays for FC Barcelona in Spain), urged immediate action to “save the lives of women and children who are always the first victims of food crises”. Players from the national teams of other countries threatened by the crisis, including Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger, also joined Oxfam’s campaign to call for speedy international help.
Action is underway to address the growing shortage of food in West Africa. The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) this month launched an appeal for 65.7 million dollars to support the distribution of emergency supplies in Niger, where 34,000 young children are at risk of starvation. The European Union has also taken a decision to double its humanitarian assistance for the Sahel region, pledging 105 million Euros (137 million dollars) in 2012 instead of the planned 45 million. Charities, such as Oxfam, the International Medical Corps and Save the Children, are ramping up to provide emergency assistance. Save the Children has launched an appeal to raise 30 million pounds (47 million dollars).
Malnutrition is already a huge problem in Niger, which has one of the worst child survival rates across the globe; one in every six children dies before their fifth birthday. With the extra money from its appeal, Save the Children hopes to scale up operations to reach around 1.3 million people and prevent the deaths of thousands of youngsters. The charity’s Humanitarian Director says “if we wait to act until children are dying, it will be far too late”.
However, a former aid official involved in Niger’s food crisis of 2004-2005 has warned the UN and foreign aid agencies that they must learn the lessons from earlier famines. Seidou Bakari told the news agency Alertnet that outside groups must work alongside the government, rather than trying to take over. He urged international agencies not to think they could “solve problems alone”, because such an attitude would cause conflict with the local authorities and undermine “the ultimate goal to help people”.
Such a clash is less likely this time around, since Niger has a new government which seems determined to make preparations for its hungry people. The government has been involved in early contingency plans and was part of the process to draft the 2012 UN consolidated humanitarian appeal (CAP) for Niger. And unlike in the past, when outside assistance was not requested until the situation became desperate, the current government flagged up the need for additional food supplies as early as the autumn last year.