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Niger: Shared responsibility for a slow response

Written by Paul Harvey


Newspapers and television have given extensive coverage in the past week to the humanitarian crisis in Niger. Many commentators have legitimately asked how, in a year when attention was meant to be focused on Africa, and only a few weeks after the G8 summit, we have managed to let such a crisis develop in a peaceful and democratic country. The answer from most humanitarian actors thus far has been that warnings about the potential crisis were given, but donor governments were too slow to respond, particularly to UN appeals.

A Humanitarian Policy Group Briefing Paper on Niger argues that it is important to examine the failings of international engagement with Niger in a broader sense. Whilst there were clear warnings throughout 2004 and into 2005 about the potential for crisis, there are serious questions over the strategies proposed to deal with the crisis. Until very recently, the Niger government and UN agencies avoided free food distributions. The focus was on subsidised cereal sales, cereal banks, food and cash for work, subsidised fodder provision and preventative veterinary care. In part, the reluctance to accept a need for free food seems to have stemmed from concerns that it would disrupt markets, create dependency and undermine development efforts. As a recent HPG report argues, fears about dependency should not be a justification for not providing relief. The doubling of food prices and the collapse in terms of trade for livestock should have triggered a much earlier relief response. There are also serious questions about the wisdom of a strategy that relied so heavily on subsidised cereal sales, when the amounts distributed were insufficient and prices kept on rising.

There is a clear divergence of views among international actors on the magnitude and intensity of the crisis. Some NGO appeals talk of millions facing imminent starvation. Other actors point to localised pockets of acute food insecurity, and are adamant that this does not constitute a famine. There seems to be a difference of view as to whether current levels of malnutrition and food insecurity are exceptional, or whether they constitute a relatively normal occurrence during the hungry season in this desperately poor country. But the fact that the present situation may be largely a consequence of chronic poverty can be no excuse for failing to respond to crisis levels of hunger and suffering.

As well as inappropriate or inadequate strategies for response, there also seems to have been a lack of capacity on the part of humanitarian actors. Relatively few aid agencies were present in Niger, and humanitarian capacity at a global level was over-stretched, with ongoing responses in Darfur and to the Indian Ocean tsunami. This seems to have been as much a question of lack of human resources as lack of funding.

Over the past year, there has been much discussion of the need to reform the humanitarian system. Niger shows just how far that system is from providing a timely, effective and proportionate response. The crisis is being cited as an example of why new mechanisms are needed to improve performance, such as an expanded emergency reserve fund. But the failure to respond more effectively to the Niger crisis has as much to do with a failure of analysis and a lack of implementing capacity as it does with available funds.

By early August 2005, a significant humanitarian response to the Niger crisis was getting under way. What matters most immediately is that emergency assistance in Niger and elsewhere in the region reaches those that desperately need it. But it is important that lessons are learnt from the failure to respond earlier. Merely blaming donors is not good enough. All the actors involved – including the Niger government – need to take a critical look at their own responsibilities. There is a need to examine the quality, credibility and effectiveness of early-warning and assessment analysis, and the appropriateness of the actual responses. Humanitarian actors need to examine their own capacity to respond to crises at a global level, and development actors in Niger need to look at their preparedness and willingness to recognise and respond to crisis levels of suffering, regardless of whether these are chronic or acute. Given these uncertainties about information and capacity, it is also vital that the scale and extent of food insecurity and possible crises in Mali and Mauritania continue to be closely monitored.

Other key links

Famine Early Warning Systems Network