27 July 2005
- Debt relief is good, but means little to a child who is starving right now, warns WFP Executive Director James Morris in an article which has appeared in The Guardian (UK), Daily Yomiuri (Japan), Kristeligt Dagblad (Denmark) and Tribune de Geneve (Switzerland).
A gruesome show has been on a non-stop African tour for far too long. In the past five decades there have been memorable dates in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and across a swath of southern Africa. Today, the stage is set in Niger. The cameras are rolling again and the familiar players are in the spotlight.
The poster children that tug at our heartstrings are all there, wide-eyed and ribbed with pain, their skulls grotesquely out of proportion to their withered bodies. Their skin hangs loose on feeble bones and many feed through tubes taped to their faces. They are gathered to play out their final days on a well-worn set that many may never leave.
Niger is not an island of desperation in Africa, it is part of a sea of problems across the continent.
James Morris, WFP Executive Director
While the images are arresting, words of warning about their plight appear to have lost their value.
Distress signals about Niger, stretching back as far as November last year, went unheeded; but the television reports first transmitted by the BBC have struck a nerve. The mute images of pain have now reached out from our television sets with skeletal hands, invading our lives and shaming us to act.
At the World Food Programme (WFP), we are confronted with this misery of hunger every day. Niger is not an island of desperation in Africa, it is part of a sea of problems across the continent. In neighbouring countries such as Mauritania and Mali it is possible to find equally malnourished children whose lives have also been blighted by the combination of the worst locust invasion in 15 years and a devastating drought.
The horrible irony for these countries is that they are at peace, not at war. They are not ruled by tyrants, or being fought over for valuable natural resources. Their single misfortune is to be afflicted by a grinding poverty unseen by the outside world.
We have warned for months about the problems in Mauritania and Mali, as with Niger, but the world can only cope with so much misery and the TV cameras' random gaze has yet to fall on these struggling nations. If one lesson was learned from Ethiopia's disastrous famine in the 1980s, it was that the world should listen to the early warnings and respond promptly.
A slow response is costly not just in terms of lives, but in terms of the amount needed to rebuild the livelihoods of the afflicted. In Niger, communities have been forced to sell off their precious herds of cattle.
Perhaps now is the time to repeat our warnings about other growing crises that have been ignored. In the Bhar-el-Ghazal region of southern Sudan, where up to 70,000 people died in 1998, there are again worrying signs of severe food shortages. In southern Africa, where drought and HIV infection are working in a deadly combination, we estimate that 7-10 million people could need food aid by the end of the year. Ethiopia and Eritrea are also under threat.
As with Niger, the relief operations in these areas have not received the necessary funding. Nobody should be shocked if, in a few months' time, journalists feel inclined to point their cameras towards Sudan and southern Africa and expose once again what Sir Bob Geldof has called the pornography of African poverty.
Britain has done Africa a huge favour in its push to relieve the burden of debt. But debt relief means very little to a starving child who needs food now. We must not forget the millions in Africa who are so poor and so dispossessed that their immediate survival is already beyond these noble interventions. Britain responded quickly to Niger's problems, but most other donor nations did not.
That the crisis in Niger was emerging at the time the popstars took to the stage at Live 8 and the politicians began gathering in Gleneagles demonstrates that Africa's problems are more than just developmental. Whatever we do, we need a "food first" policy that ensures better nutrition for the poorest African families. Without it, they can hardly hope to take advantage of debt relief and development aid.
In Niger, the aid is now flooding in, but the fact that the world can be moved only by graphic images of suffering is nothing to celebrate. Many of the children who featured in the news reports are already beyond help.
The time has come to set our sights higher. There are more creeping emergencies in Africa that have the potential to become as dire as that in Niger. If humanitarian agencies warn of impending problems, then action must follow immediately.
It is not acceptable to wait for another grotesque parade of starving children before governments are moved to help. This show has toured Africa for too long. Let us work together to ensure that Niger is the final curtain call.