Few countries have the misfortune of having a planned “hunger season,” where crop yields and food supplies are so low that some degree of famine is expected.
Such is the case with the northwest African nation of Niger, which is experiencing a food crisis sparked by environmental and economic factors.
The country, with a population of about 16 million, is skirted by the Sahara Desert with its largest bordering states being Algeria on the north and Nigeria to the south.
“Niger is part of the Sahelian belt where poor rainfall is common,” explained Valerie Edwards, World Vision’s Washington, D.C.-based country program manager for Niger. “It has had failed harvests which created food crises in 1974, ’84, 2005 and now in 2010. Eighty percent of the population is in rural areas living through subsistence farming.
“There is not a lot of irrigation development and chronic malnutrition in a lot of places..”
The humanitarian organization is working on long-term irrigation projects while also trying a common strategy in the developing world of creating microfinanced loans for individuals and families to start businesses appropriate for the culture and as a means of survival.
Niger, too, has many other intervening factors which complicated the situation.
According to the CIA World Factbook – a comprehensive almanac of statistics on countries around the globe – Niger ranks first worldwide in births and third in infant mortality. Its literacy rate is around 29 percent, with only 15 percent for girls and women. Poor sanitation and resource management also leads to high risks of potentially fatal diseases including typhoid fever and malaria.
“Access to education is relatively weak, especially for girls,” Edwards said. “It’s something people need to work on and a big part of the overall picture in the country. One of the things we are working on as an organization is to create professional education option for kids so they can learn trades that will help them as adults.”
The country is also in the midst of a political transition, as a coup in February ousted longtime ruler Mamadou Tandja. A military junta led by Maj. Salou Djibo runs the country and thus far has barred itself from running in national elections it promises to sponsor.
Edwards said working with the transitional government has not created any major problems and that World Vision is still able to work in the predominantly Muslim country.
Although its location makes agriculture a challenge, it is a rich source of uranium, an ore vital to nuclear power.
Edwards said the development of agriculture, health infrastructure and education all need to be part of a “holistic approach” for the country to be able to convert its mineral wealth into an economic benefit for its citizenry as a whole.
That certainly can’t be remotely overcome if starvation and malnutrition are serious issues.
“For example, at one of our malnutrition screening centers we had 22 cases diagnosed last year,” Edwards said. “At the same center in a three-week period we saw over 53 cases recently. That shows the severity of the malnutrition and the gravity of the current situation.”