Niger's poor find money to help the starving

By Abdoulaye Massalatchi

NIAMEY, July 22 (Reuters) - Already among the poorest people on the planet, market traders, clerks and labourers in Niger are sacrificing what little they have to help millions of starving compatriots survive a devastating drought.

While U.N. agencies have been pleading for months for rich countries to buy food aid for some of an estimated 3.6 million hungry villagers, people like Amina Gambo, a housewife, have been quietly handing over all they can spare.

"I would have liked to do better, but I just don't have any more," she said, after contributing 1,500 CFA francs ($2.78) to a national "solidarity" fund set up by the government to cope with the impact of last year's drought and locust swarms.

Disappointed by what officials say is a meagre response to its international appeals, Niger's government asked individuals to give donations to help people starving in the West African country, including almost a million malnourished children.

The government says it does not have enough money to reach most people in villages, which often suffer shortages even in good years, but the funds it has raised are helping a lucky few.

"I gave 3,000 CFA, the earnings from a day's sales, and I did it with a happy heart because it's our children, our parents, our friends, who are suffering," said Alou Seyni, who sells second hand clothes in a market in the capital Niamey.

The worsening crisis coincided with this month's summit of the Group of Eight most industrialised countries in Scotland where world leaders pledged to fight African poverty, but aid workers say they have shown limited commitment to Niger.

So far the solidarity fund has raised just over $1.5 million since being launched in late May, more than Britain's donation of $912,000 to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) appeal for $16 million for Niger, and Italy's contribution of $1.2 million.

The United States, France and others have yet to contribute to this particular WFP appeal, U.N. officials say, although they have donated to Niger in other ways.


A former French colony, Niger is the second poorest country in the world after Sierra Leone with average income of about $210 per person a year. Its poverty is fuelled by factors like barren soils, poor rain and its landlocked status, rather than by the conflict triggering many African food crises.

In an overwhelmingly Muslim country, religious feeling has played a part in encouraging acts of alms giving, often to beggars hobbling into city mosques in search of succour.

"The Koran tells us to help those close to us, to wish only for people's well-being, so it's normal that people in Niger show national solidarity," said Madougou Saidou, a "marabout," or traditional spiritual leader, at the Boukoki III mosque.

Niger's President Tandja Mamadou led donations by government ministers by handing over five million CFA francs ($9,258) to the fund, while ministers said in June they each would give two-thirds of a month's salary -- about $900.

Critics say the government has struggled to revive the ailing economy or come up with an effective strategy to combat the food shortages since appealing for help in November. It even raised tax on basic food items before being forced to back down.

But for people forced to eat leaves to live, the donations provide at least a glimmer of hope of reaching the next harvest.

"We had to search through termite mounds to find grains of millet or sorghum," said Boubacar Taweye, a farmer. "Thank God aid is coming, it's not much, but at least it's coming."


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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