Niger gets Islamic aid for food, threatens Oxfam

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, June 13 (Reuters) - Niger has secured more than $368 million in food aid at an Islamic donor summit and has threatened to expel the aid agency Oxfam over a survey on food security, relief workers said on Wednesday.

Participants at a donor conference convened this week by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in Doha, Qatar, pledged the funds for three five-year plans to improve food security in Niger, state radio "Voice of the Sahel" said.

The landlocked, arid country on the southern side of the Sahara is one of the poorest nations in the world and ranks bottom of the 2006 United Nations Human Development Index.

Drought and disastrous harvests left an estimated 3.6 million people short of food in 2005, when international media coverage and shocking images of malnourished children helped prompt a global aid appeal, but Niger's government is highly sensitive to reports of its people going hungry.

The National Committee for the Prevention and Management of Food Crises said in March that 1.1 million of Niger's 13 million people were at risk from food shortages this year and 400,000 would need aid, despite an overall national grain surplus.

Oxfam International sponsored a report by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on food security in Tillaberi province, northwest of the capital Niamey, and the NGOs were due to publish the report at a workshop on Wednesday.

"To our great surprise, we learnt that the government did not want the workshop to happen," Moussa Tchangari, spokesman for the consortium of NGOs which wrote the report, told reporters.

"Rather than contact us, they contacted our partners, notably Oxfam International who supported our survey, to threaten them that if the workshop took place, they should pack their bags and the organisations which undertook the survey would be disbanded," he said.


Frank Smit, who works with Oxfam in Niger, declined to comment in detail on the matter.

"It is a sensitive question," Smit told Reuters.

"I met Interior Minister Albade Abouba about this subject and I told him that we funded the report. As for the workshop, that is a matter for the (NGO) consortium," he said.

Although its people have received food aid for many years from agencies such as the United Nations World Food Programme, Niger's government has responded angrily to some foreign media reports about the extent of food shortages.

Last year, the government said it would deny accreditation to foreign journalists to report on shortages after criticising "negative" coverage by a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) team who said they had evidence people were still going hungry.

Niger's political establishment has been shaken by a corruption scandal which prompted parliament to vote the government out of office last month.

It is also facing a spate of attacks by armed Tuareg groups which have triggered a ban on travel without armed escort in the Saharan north, where lucrative uranium mines are situated.

The capital Niamey has also been shaken by violent student demonstrations this year over housing, food, transport and unpaid grants.

(Additional reporting by Alistair Thomson in Dakar)


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