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'The hungry season'

Aid groups rush to respond as Niger suffers through a summer food crisis

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

A World Vision video shows a 2-year-old baby who has never talked and whose skeletal legs can no longer support her weight. She weighs just 12 pounds. A 17-month-old baby can no longer crawl and has never walked. When asked if they had enough food, the baby's grandmother laughed and said, "There's never enough food."

This is Niger before its current food crisis. The World Food Programme has called for $125 million to feed Niger, estimating that half of the population (7.1 million) is at risk for hunger due to last year's drought-decimated harvest. According to a World Vision assessment in March, about 74,400 children in Niger will be malnourished and about 1,042 will develop medical complications as a result.

Niger experienced a similar crisis in 1973, 1983, and 2005. Some 82 percent of the population relies on agriculture, so when droughts or floods obliterate the harvest, the country goes hungry. In 2005 it was locusts. This year, the cereal harvest yielded 31 percent less than in 2008. Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute, said hunger gnaws the nation almost annually. The harvest season is short and the people live off their harvest for as long as it lasts, then go into "the hungry season" around May or June.

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The problem spans West-Central Africa, as the sun beats down and rain is late or erratic. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 10 million people in the Sahel region of West-Central Africa will risk going hungry. It is bolstering efforts in four countries: helping 700,000 in Chad; 339,000 in Cameroon; 258,000 people in Mali; and 2.3 million in Niger.

And WFP is only focusing on the "worst affected areas" in Niger. Mark Green, deputy director for Barnabas Aid International, said Christians are often most vulnerable, as a minority population that lacks an extensive network. Christians make up just 0.3 percent of the population in Niger and usually live in remote areas.

"Big aid agencies are obviously looking at the big picture," said Green. These agencies work with local and national authorities, who sometimes neglect minority populations, Green said: "The minorities are really going to be at the end of the queue." Barnabas Aid was already supporting 312 Christian families in Niger before the recent crisis. Now they are trying to expand that help to include 1,122 more Christian families.

The good news is that aid efforts need to carry Niger through for just a few months, until harvest time. Politicians in affluent countries continue to make pledges-those at the G8 Summit of 2009 pledged to invest $20 billion in rural development for the world's poorest countries-but past governmental efforts do not inspire confidence.

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