Niger food crisis: Providing aid and strengthening communities

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Rachel Bonham Carter

NEW YORK, 3 August 2005 - The food crisis in Niger means that the number of children requiring medical treatment for malnutrition has more than doubled in a year. Admissions at therapeutic feeding centres continue to rise. In response, UNICEF is supporting deliveries of emergency food and medical supplies and is training health workers in management of severe and moderate malnutrition among children.

Building up the capacity of communities in Niger to cope with food shortages is an equally important, long-term component of the response. UNICEF is supporting community education about nutrition and how to deal with shortages, and is supporting the creation of cereal banks.

Dr Kadri Koda is one of 85 health workers being trained by UNICEF. "We're sharing our years of experience," he says, "while also learning the latest techniques and approaches to managing severe and moderate under-nutrition.

"The worst cases are those suffering from severe under-nutrition, along with medical complications like malaria, bloody diarrhoea, pneumonia and anaemia," he continues. "Nine-month old children who weigh the same as new-borns...children so weak that they have no energy to cry... their silence is deafening. It's only when they start to cry that we are happy because it means they are gaining strength."

Longer term solutions

UNICEF Programme Officer Enrico Leonardi says the organization is working to build up capacity and knowledge in Nigerien villages. He says the goal of the work is enabling "the awareness, identification, prevention and eventual treatment of malnutrition by the community themselves."

Mr. Leonardi says the education programmes will also teach people about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding of children up to the age of six months, which is still not widely practised in Niger.

UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the United Nations Development Programme are setting up cereal banks in many villages throughout the country. The grain is stored in small warehouses - not just to feed families during the current crisis, but also to provide the beginnings of a longer-term solution.

Cereal banks are run by the villagers themselves. They sell off the cereal, often at less than the market price, in the months before the harvest, when food is scarce and prices are high. The money is then spent on restocking the bank at harvest time when the cereal is cheaper.

"Every year in Niger there's a four month period when there's not enough to eat," says Arsene Azandossessi, the Chief of UNICEF's office in Maradi. But a properly managed cereal bank will enable a community to deal with a food shortage. "When we set up a cereal bank, it is to make the village self-supporting."

Donor response

About 3.6 million people have been affected by the food shortages, among them 800,000 children under five. Of these children, 160,000 are moderately malnourished and 32,000 are severely malnourished. UNICEF and its partners have appealed for $16 million to fund:

  • Nutrition: supplies of therapeutic and non-therapeutic food; opening and support of new nutrition centres; training and capacity building of health workers in prevention, identification and treatment of malnutrition; community level awareness with a focus on exclusive breastfeeding.

  • Health: provision of basic drugs, measles immunization and vitamin A; monitoring of incidence of other related diseases like malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory infections.

  • Water and Sanitation: provision of basic hygiene kits to all families of affected children.

  • Child Protection: prevention and monitoring of sexual abuse cases affecting vulnerable women and children.

The Government of France has donated both drugs and food supplies to UNICEF in Niger. A shipment of 1.7 tons of essential drugs arrived on 30 July, and included antibiotics, anti-malarials and de-worming tablets, as well as special oral re-hydration salts for the treatment of diarrhoea in severely malnourished children.

Another shipment delivered 35.4 tons of therapeutic milk, therapeutic food (including Plumpy nut, a vitamin-rich peanut paste) and oral rehydration salts, along with 2.6 tons of locally-purchased therapeutic food.

More supplies are due to arrive by plane later this week, including 206 tons of UNIMIX, a special food for malnourished children. These shipments are being funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) and USAID.

"We're very grateful to the donors who have already started responding," says Enrico Leonardi. Besides food and medical supplies, support has been received for air freight costs, which can be extremely expensive.

"But this is just the beginning," continues Mr. Leonardi. "We have to keep pushing for this response at field level in order to avoid a deterioration of the situation."