Niger is one of the world's poorest countries, with nearly three-quarters of its population living below the poverty line. Most people in this landlocked country live in rural areas and are dependent on farming and livestock breeding. According to the government, of the 106 zones faced with food shortages, 56 are in critical condition. Losses to and declining health of livestock coupled with high costs of cereals have only exacerbated the situation for millions.
Caritas Niger and its network of diocesan centres, which have visited the worst affected zones, including remote villages and hamlets, report that numerous households are cutting back from three meals a day to just one, and any millet that is available is a luxury that most cannot afford. Many people have resorted to eating leaves and grasses to survive, which has led to a deterioration in their overall nutritional health and an increase in illness, especially among women and children. To make money for food, many have begun selling personal belongings, including livestock, while others have fled to cities and neighbouring countries in search of work.
In March 2005, Caritas Niger appealed to the Caritas Confederation for assistance in meeting the food needs of extremely vulnerable households and communities, and in helping those communities to become better prepared to cope with future crises. A special operations appeal (SOA) was launched for nearly 800,000 USD, and Caritas partners throughout the network have contributed funds to cover much of the requested amount.
Caritas Niger's response, under the SOA, includes the provision of 580 metric tonnes of food for food-for-work activities and food aid to communities and villages where cereal deficits are more than 50%. Work is under way in the regions of Agadez, Diffa, Dosso, Maradi, Tahoua, Tillabery/Niamey, and Zinder. It is hoped that the food-for-work programmes will be an incentive for encouraging strong community involvement and for reducing migration to cities.
Caritas Niger is also providing 300 tonnes of food for sale at reduced prices, 550 tonnes of food to help build up cereal banks, and 100 tonnes of food for distribution to the most vulnerable at no charge. Improved seeds for sowing and feed for livestock are also being allocated.
The Caritas Confederation is monitoring the crisis in Niger closely, as well as in neighbouring Burkina Faso, and will keep the network abreast of any new developments. A meeting is scheduled in the coming days to assess further needs and to discuss additional funding available from Caritas members and partner organisations.
Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organisations present in 200 countries and territories.