By Bob Coen
GAWOUNAWA, Niger, 27 January 2012 – At the end of the farming season, Halima Isaka sat with her 10-month-old daughter at the edge of their family’s field, watching as her husband loaded a pile of dried millet stalks onto an oxcart.
VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on joint emergency interventions by UNICEF and partners to help protect vulnerable families from the threat of malnutrition in Niger.
Once again, the harvest has been disappointing.
“This year’s crop was so bad that it will not even last us three months,” she said. “For three years now, we have had very poor rains in this area. Before that we had better rains, but now it’s three years in a row that we don’t have enough food to sustain our family.”
Like much of the country, this arid region bordering the Sahara desert is prone to seasons of drought, but in recent years the situation has worsened. Today, millions across Niger face severe malnutrition due to food shortages.
It is part of a food crisis looming over the entire Sahel region – the result of drought, poor harvests and rising food prices. Six million people in Niger and millions more in Mali, Mauritania and Chad are affected. Communities in Burkina Faso, Senegal, northern Cameroon and Nigeria are also at risk. Many governments have declared a state of emergency.
Need for assistance
As her husband led the ox and its precious load of grain back to their compound, Ms. Isaka got on her knees, a sieve in hand, and scraped the ground for fallen scraps.
“I try to look for and gather up as many of the fallen grains as possible,” she said. With seven children to feed, and at least six months before the next harvest, every bit of food matters.
“I’ve been able to gather almost two full bowls of millet, which will be enough for one family meal,” she said when she had finished.
But Ms. Isaka’s family will soon receive additional assistance in the form of a cash transfer.
It is part of a bold joint emergency intervention by UNICEF, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the European Community Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), the government and other partners, helping vulnerable families in Magaria District purchase food with monthly cash allowances.
Mothers with children between 6 and 23 months old were already receiving monthly rations of enriched foods under a 'blanket feeding' programme – but it was not enough.
“What we discovered during the blanket feeding is that if we give a food ration to protect the child, the whole family ends up using it,” said Hamid Diourro, the Regional Director of Niger’s Ministry of Health. “So the government thought it necessary, in order to protect that food ration, to put in place the cash transfer project.”
More than twenty thousand vulnerable households in Magaria have been targeted by the cast transfer programme, which started in September 2011. Each mother receives a monthly cash payment of 20,000 CFA, or approximately US$40 dollars, for three months. Save the Children, a UNICEF partner, runs the distributions and works closely with community leaders to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable are reached.
These mothers “are the ones who are struggling for food to nourish, to feed their children” said Hélene Kouyaté of UNICEF, “and we would like to empower these women.”
The day after the distribution, Ms. Isaka was more at ease.
“Before we received this money, we were forced to go out in the bush to gather leaves in order to feed out family and children,” she said while preparing the family’s midday meal. “If we were lucky, we cooked the leaves with a very small amoung of millet soup, but we still went to bed hungry.”
UNICEF hopes to receive donor support to expand the programme to other regions of Niger in 2012, which would not only benefit families but also strengthen the government’s capacity to respond to food crises.
“All of the partners who have contributed to making this project happen can replicate this experience elsewhere,” Mr. Diourro said.
Still, chronic malnutrition is not simply a problem of inadequate food – it is also one of poor feeding practices and insufficient access to safe water and health care, noted a recent report by Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. For long-term success, additional interventions must address the root causes of chronic malnutrition, including poverty and inequity.
In the meantime, cash transfers are reaching those most in need, like Ms. Isaka and her family.
“This project,” she said, “has been a life-saver.”