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Famine in Niger? Let Them Eat Yellowcake.


The press is obsessed with the African nation these days. Sounds like an eating disorder.



Above: A malnourished child in Niger finally gets fed. Below, on this map of Niger, find Maradi and Tahoua, east of Niamey. The epicenter of the crisis is in villages to the north, says Doctors Without Borders.
CIA Factbook

Forget Niger’s yellowcake. Don’t even think about anybody at any time exporting any kind of cake whatsoever from Niger. That starving country needs all the cake, grains, cereals it can get.

One of the worst crises in decades of starving children is occurring right now in Niger. Did I mention starving pregnant women and starving elderly, too?

A country always in crisis is in one of its worst. As the U.N.’s IRIN news service pointed out late last week, “millions teeter on the brink of famine”.

Hey, you can even forget about handing out that prohibitively expensive yellowcake stuff. People cannot afford even the 46 cents it costs to buy a cup of millet. Can’t relate to that? Try this:

As men flee to urban centres, their women lie listless at home, too weak to work the fields despite the recent onset of the rainy season, and their children wither to skin and bones.

Here’s more from IRIN:

Last year, the vast semi-arid nation suffered the worst drought in recent memory as well as a crop-destroying invasion of locusts. Now granaries lie empty, market prices are sky-rocketing and every day malnourished children are dying.

“Some 3.6 million people, including 800,000 children, are facing acute malnutrition, which at any moment could turn into a famine,” said [Jean] Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist [and the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food].

But the only mention this West African desert nation of 12 million people gets in the U.S. press these days is connected with the Niger/yellowcake manipulations of chipmunk-cheeked Karl Rove (left). Today, everybody’s writing once again about how Rove outed Valerie Plame—not by name, but he outed her all the same. Well, everybody has known that for at least a week, since Newsweek revealed that tidbit. Among others, I wrote about that on July 11. But today’s papers are full of it again. Some of it is highly entertaining, like Frank Rich‘s fresh piece.

But here’s the skinny on the other story about Niger, this time from Doctors Without Borders, the dynamic international aid group better known in the world as MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres):

MSF expects to treat more than 20,000 severely malnourished children this year [in Niger], double the number of children treated in 2004, in one of the organization’s biggest nutritional operations in the past 30 years.

OK, we’ve got plenty of food. Let’s send it to them, right? Here’s another morsel from MSF:

Until now, the reluctance of international donors and Niger’s government concerning the free distribution of food has blocked an adequate response to the situation.

“This emergency has not been taken seriously enough,” said Emmanuel Drouhin, manager of MSF programs in Niger. “And if nothing is done before November, a lot of people will have to share the blame.”

You’re probably wondering about the reluctance. Well, it’s as if Milton Friedman himself were in charge of Niger’s economy. From the IRIN story:

The government in Niamey has so far chosen to subsidize grain sales in the hardest-hit areas and has resisted large-scale free food handouts for fear that they might encourage dependency on aid and distort local markets.

However Ziegler said the authorities had now accepted the need for a change in tactics.

Earlier this week, the UN World Food Programme announced plans to triple the number of people getting free food aid to 1.2 million, as the food crisis tightened its grip. It appealed to donors for US $12 million to fund this expanded distribution programme.

Like the Niger/yellowcake story, this Niger/no-cake story has been unfolding for a while, right out there in the open for anyone to see:

This is not a natural catastrophe, but rather a serious nutritional crisis that has been forecast for months. Despite this fact, aid is still not being delivered. But there is still time to act.

“There is still time to avoid thousands of deaths in both Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel this summer,” said Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of MSF in France. “Today, there are easy-to-use nutritional products for children that can save lives with just a few weeks of treatment.”

The landlocked nation, slightly less than twice the size of George W. Bush‘s Texas, is one of the hottest countries on Earth, according to the CIA Factbook.

And now comes the rainy season. But there’s no rest for the weary. Weakened children are more susceptible to malaria, a common result of the rains. And as MSF points out:

With a shortage of food until the harvest in October and greater levels of disease expected for the rainy season, thousands more children will succumb to severe malnutrition if they are not able to obtain food aid and free medical care.

The food security system, co-managed by the government and donors, has pledged to bring aid to people through free distributions of food and other necessary goods in case of a nutritional crisis. While the serious nature of this crisis was recognized in October 2004, by June 2005 food aid was still insufficient in volume and not free of charge. As such, it is still inaccessible for a segment of the population.

The measures taken so far are absolutely not in line with the needs. While the Prime Minister of Niger pledged in early June to allocate free healthcare to malnourished children, this commitment has still not become a reality.

Maybe the world can work in concert to take care of this.

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