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Aid workers say food getting through in Niger

It needed pictures such as these to arouse world attention

(Keystone)

Swiss aid workers in Niger, where an estimated 3.6 million people are facing food shortages, say the situation is improving as supplies finally arrive.

But they have criticised the international community for being slow to react to the crisis in the West African nation.

"Aid is beginning to arrive slowly but the situation is also getting better because the rains have come early. Plants are growing again and people are once again finding food," Peter Bieler, head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s (SDC) bureau in Niger, told swissinfo.

However, Bieler urged that there be no let-up in the international aid operation now underway as the lack of food meant that the coming harvest would be used for immediate consumption.

"The post-harvest situation is going to be tough. We definitely need this aid to prevent the most vulnerable from going hungry," he added.

Bieler said it had become clear as far back as last October when the harvest was hit by locusts and drought that the world’s second-poorest country would face food shortages this year.

Alarmed by the deteriorating situation, the SDC allocated a first emergency food aid credit for Niger of SFr332,000 ($260,000) in May. This was followed by a further SFr500,000 in June.

"When we started with our first initiative in May we thought the international community would come in shortly after that. But it didn’t happen," said Bieler, speaking from the capital Niamey.

Warning signs

Pia Wildberger, a spokeswoman for the charity Swissaid, which is also running projects in Niger, echoed the view that the writing had been on the wall for several months.

She suggested that part of the reason for the slow response could be put down to donor fatigue in the wake of the tsunami.

But she said it was still sad that it had taken television pictures of starving children to grab the world’s attention.

"By the end of last year it was clear there was going to be a shortage of food because of the bad harvest and the locusts," she said. "The international community could have reacted much quicker."

Wildberger added that Swissaid field workers in Niger were also reporting that food was now getting through to some areas, but she said the situation was still very tough in other parts of the country.

Donations coming in

On Friday United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland announced that more donations for Niger had arrived in the past ten days than in the previous ten months.

The international community has now raised around $25 million in donations and pledges for Niger’s food crisis, and the UN says it is confident of meeting its $30.7 million target.

Egeland said that the UN had issued its first warning about the looming humanitarian crisis in November and had sounded the alarm again in February and March.

"Over the past few days the world has finally woken up, but it took the images of dying children to make the world wake up," he added.

The Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies announced on Friday that it was seeking SFr18 million to "avert widespread starvation" in Niger and three other drought-hit countries along the southern edge of the Sahara – Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The UN says around 3.6 million people in Niger – around 28% of the population – are short of food, with tens of thousands of children at risk of starving to death.

The international community has now raised some $25 million in donations and pledges for Niger’s food crisis.

But Swiss aid workers say the international community has been slow to react, arguing that the warning signs were there months ago.

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