Niger: A disaster that could have been avoided

Vatican City, 5 August 2005 - Fr Pierre Cibambo, the Africa desk officer at the Caritas Internationalis General Secretariat in the Vatican, reports on an increasing humanitarian disaster in Niger where he arrived Wednesday. He says: "Caritas Niger has been working since October 2004 on this grave crisis through a feeding programme and the distribution of better seeds, concentrating on the most vulnerable. The tragedy has ostensibly been caused by locust plagues and a prolonged drought, but the real tragedy is that, once again, the world only woke up to the extent of the disaster relatively recently."
Fr Cibambo will go into the field to see for himself the Caritas programme supported by members of the Confederation from all over the world.

CI Secretary General, Duncan MacLaren, added: "This is a case of 'when is a famine not a famine'. Governments hesitated in calling it a famine in order not to disrupt local markets and discourage dependency and that is right. But in this case, it was clear that there were hundreds of thousands of children acutely malnourished and many more people than normal at risk from malnutrition and related disease.

The IMF is also partly to blame. In April, the government of Niger raised taxes on a range of consumer goods as an IMF condition for budgetary aid - at the height of a growing awareness that a major famine was looming. In addition, there has been a collapse in trade for livestock and a near doubling of staple food prices. All of these factors pointed not just to a normal 'food deficit' situation, but a major crisis which should have immediately been named as such and appropriate action taken. How many people have to die of hunger before the world of plenty does something to prevent starvation?

In September this year, the heads of governments of the world meet to discuss the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that they all supported in 2000. The first goal is to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. By the measure of what has occurred in Niger, stretching into Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania, to say nothing of the growing crises in Eritrea and Ethiopia, we are not doing very well. The message for the MDG Summit is action not words, life not needless deaths."

Caritas Internationalis is a confederation of 162 Catholic relief, development, and social service organisations present in 200 countries and territories.