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2005-08-01

Niger Faces Major Food Emergency

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The African country of Niger is rarely mentioned in this country. Among the only times you hear Niger mentioned is in relation to the Wilson/Plame/Rove scandal. But today in Niger, 3.3 million people, including almost a million children, are facing starvation after a drought and locusts wiped out last year’s harvest. We go to Niamey, Niger for a report from Doctors Without Borders. [includes rush transcript]

The African country of Niger is rarely mentioned in this country. The only time we’ve heard it mentioned in the last few years is in relation to the Wilson/Plame/Karl Rove scandal–that the CIA sent ambassador Wilson to Niger to investigate claims that Saddam Hussein sought to buy uranium from the country. The claim was not true even though President Bush said it was during his 2003 State of the Union address.

But the African country is facing an immense crisis of its own. In Niger, 3.3 million people, including almost a million children, are facing starvation after a drought and locusts wiped out last year’s harvest. It is listed as the second least developed country in the world by the United Nations development program. More than 25% of Niger’s children die before their fifth birthday. Jan Egeland, United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said the emergency could have been prevented.

  • Jan Egeland, UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator:
    "We have a full blown emergency in Niger, children are dying from hunger, it was all predictable, the government and we appealed in November last year, again in March, and we had a huge flash appeal as we call it in mid-May. I met with all of the donors here in New York on the 13th of May, and only now these days in mid -July when the images come on television of dying, starving children, do we receive the funding we need."

In the last few days, the United Nations has more than doubled the number of people it plans to feed in Niger. The U.N World Food Program announced that it will now aim to provide emergency rations to 2.5 million people. Last week, the agency’s stated goal was 1.2 million. Relief workers on the ground say the UN and other agencies should have started the large-scale emergency food aid much earlier. _Development agencies have criticized the world media for not bringing the crisis to the attention of the public despite numerous efforts from these agencies to get the story in newspapers and on television. The Chief Executive of the Disaster Emergency Committee, Brendan Gormley told Scotland’s Sunday Herald, "the whole push of G8 and Live8 was to get away from chronic images of African starvation and Niger didn’t fit. It risked falling in the "old" Africa. The public and politicians weren"t looking because of the emphasis on reaching a long term resolve for Africa. Sadly, People are hungry now."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, U.N.’s Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said the emergency could have been prevented.

JAN EGELAND: We have a full-blown emergency in Niger. Children are dying from hunger. It was all predictable. The government and we appealed in November of last year, again in March, and we had a huge flash appeal, as we call it, in mid-May. I met with all of the donors here in New York on the 13th of May. And only now, these days in mid-July, when the images come on television of dying, starving children, do we receive the funding we need.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jan Egeland, senior U.N. official. In the last few days the United Nations has more than doubled the number of people it plans to feed in Niger. The U.N. World Food program announced it will now aim to provide emergency rations to 2.5 million people. Last week, the agency’s stated goal was 1.2 million. Relief workers on the ground say the U.N. and other agencies should have started the large-scale emergency food aid much earlier. Development agencies have criticized the world media for not bringing attention to the crisis. Despite numerous efforts from these agencies to get the stories in newspapers and on TV, the Chief Executive of the Disaster Emergency Committee, Brendan Gormley, told Scotland’s Sunday Herald, quote, "The whole push of G8 and Live8 was to get away from chronic images of African starvation, and Niger didn’t fit. It risked falling in the 'old' Africa. The public and politicians aren’t looking, because of the emphasis on reaching a long-term resolve for Africa. Sadly, people are hungry now." We are joined on the phone by Johanne Sekkennes, who is in Niamey, Niger, the capital, head of Doctors Without Borders mission in Niger. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Can you describe the latest? What is happening in Niger today?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: Well, the situation in Niger today is that the number of new admissions to Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, feeding centers around the country is going up. We are now admitting around over 1,000 severely malnourished children a week. Since first of January, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, has admitted over 15,000 severely malnourished children. Now, the situation in the villages today is getting worse, because we know that the coming month is the most difficult month of the year for two reasons. Number one is that it is the last month just before the next harvest, meaning that the very small food stores or, if any, are running out quickly now. Secondly, it is because we are in the rainy season now, which means more diseases for these little ones, diseases like diarrhea and malaria.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe how the situation came to this point in Niger?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: Yes. In the beginning of your program, you talked about locusts and a bad harvest. Yes, that is one or two of the problems. But one of the biggest problems why the situation is so bad today in Niger for these little children is the late response from the international community. The response given to this crisis in the beginning of this year from international community was to reinforce the normal development programs, ongoing for several years. That was not a correct, adequate response to a nutritional crisis. Food aid should have been sent in for free much earlier. Today, the aid that is coming into the country is, for many of these children, already too late. They have already died.

AMY GOODMAN: Can explain what Doctors Without Borders is doing, and how aid actually does not only come into the country, but actually get distributed?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: Yes. Doctors Without Borders has, since the beginning of the year, since we saw the number of admissions in the feeding center we had at the time go up and double and triple compared to last year, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, has increased its capacity to take care of severely malnourished children. Doctors Without Borders is also distributing free food rations, family rations, to families of severely malnourished children and moderately malnourished children in the true affected areas of regions of Maradi and Tawa in Niger. And Medecins Sans Frontieres, Doctors Without Borders, is also offering free medical consultations to the children under 5, in order to give a response, an emergency humanitarian response to this crisis. Doctors Without Borders has been responding to the crisis since the beginning of the year.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the crisis going even beyond the borders of Niger to Nigeria, to Mali, to Burkina Faso?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: Yes. I am the head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Niger. Of course, it’s the Niger situation that I know the best. But, of course, I also have messages and have information that the situation is going — this crisis is going on in the neighboring countries, as well, in the whole area. The problem comes back to, I think, for those areas, as well, is the non-reaction from the international community. Today, yes, the international community has reacted, but too late. These reactions and the aid should have come in much earlier. That is one of the reasons why the situation now is so bad. We could have prevented this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Johanne Sekkennes in Niamey, Niger, in the capital of Niger. Is this also related to global warming, in the sense of the desertification of the country, the growing area of desert?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: I’m not sure. I don’t have any information on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, finally, what people can do in the United States, what do you think is the most effective way people can help?

JOHANNE SEKKENNES: What is important now is that international donors and the international community review, see over its development strategies and have plans for such kind of crisis and not ignore these crises in the future. The review of the development strategies must be done to include more humanitarian emergency aid.

AMY GOODMAN: Johanne Sekkenes, thank you very much for being with us, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in the country of Niger.

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