Over 7 million people are expected to face severe food shortages in Niger over the next few months. When I was there in early June, many villages in the far east of the country had not yet received rain, there had been an exodus of young men to Nigeria, Benin and Libya, and women were searching for the bitter green berry – known as dilo – to cook and eat, a last resort for those who have nothing.
Whether the Niger food crisis of 2010 will be better, worse or the same as that of 2005 remains to be seen. It is only June, and there are still at 3 months before the next harvest. There are several reasons to hope that this year’s food crisis won’t be as bad as it was in 2005 -- but there are also potential pitfalls that donors, international organizations, the government and NGOs need to watch out for.
What is different about 2010? First, grains in northern Nigeria – which is a main exporter of grains to Niger -- have so far been less expensive than those in Niger. In 2005, a combination of drought, the appreciation of the Naira (against the CFA) and high fuel prices meant that grain prices were more expensive in Nigeria – making it impossible for Niger to import grains. This had a disastrous effect on local food supplies, grain prices and hence Niger’ ability to purchase food.
Second, while 2005 almost took everyone by surprise, this year, donors, the government and NGOs all recognized the problem immediately after the harvest and started planning for an eventual food crisis. Consequently, emergency response and mitigation activities – including food distributions, scaled up treatment for malnutrition cases and cash transfers – started well before the “hungry season” in some of the most affected areas.
Third, the change in the Niger government in February 2010 seems to have paved the way for better and more efficient response to this year’s food crisis. In 2005, the previous government, led by Mamadou Tandja, denied that there was a problem, therefore making it difficult for NGOs and international organization to respond. But one of the first actions by the interim government in February was to acknowledge a food crisis and ask for assistance.
Yet despite this, there are four issues that donors, the government, international organizations and NGOs need to keep in mind:
- Don’t forget the “less” vulnerable. Most of the current emergency interventions are focused on villages that were classified as “vulnerable” in a 2009 vulnerability assessment. While this ensured that the poorest would be targeted – which was the right thing to do -- there are still plenty of villages that are falling through the cracks. As additional funding becomes available and new emergency response activities come online, the government, donors and NGOs need to assess who is doing what and where, and consider intervening in currently unserved areas.
- We can’t ignore Nigeria. Although current prices favor exports from Nigeria to Niger, the situation can change quickly. For this reason, donors, the famine early warning system network (FEWS NET) and the market information system need to continue monitoring prices in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, and sound the alarm (quickly) if the situation changes.
- Cash is faster…but not always better. The United Nations recently reported that “logistical and funding constraints could cause shortages in the food aid pipeline….and cash might be needed.” Are people underserved? Yes. Could cash help? Maybe. As I argued last year, cash is faster than food, and it can certainly be better in some situations. But there are already several large-scale cash programs in the country. Giving more people cash increases demand for food – which is fine as long as there is enough food on the market. If not, prices can increase, lowering purchasing power of those who got the cash (and making the situation worse for those who didn’t). While a recent FEWS NET report argued that there were sufficient food stocks on the market, any future cash interventions need to be weighed carefully and accompanied by a price monitoring system.
- Be wary of buying (too much) food on regional markets. The World Food Program (WFP) is planning on purchasing 30,000 MT of food within the West African sub-region. Such regional procurements are faster than imported food aid from the US and Europe. But markets in Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali are closely integrated with markets in Niger – so any large-scale local purchases of food aid could potentially increase prices in Niger. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use local purchases, but rather that WFP should prioritize purchases in the southern parts of the coastal countries, and closely monitor price spikes on rural markets.