Annan says more food aid needed if lives to be saved

Fresh from visiting skeletal babies and worried mothers at the heart of Niger's food crisis, UN Secretary Kofi Annan on Wednesday called for more funds to save thousands of lives in the weeks leading up to the next harvest.

UN agencies have appealed for US $81 million to help fill empty stomachs and treat the sick in hunger-stricken Niger, the world's second poorest country.

But despite a torrent of media attention, only half of that sum -- US $41 million -- has been donated to date and Niger's people have an anxious month to go before the next crops can be harvested.

"A food crisis of such a scale is unacceptable in the 21st century," Annan told a press conference in the capital, Niamey, at the end of his two-day visit. "We are trying to push the international community to act quickly, we are telling them to hurry up."

Annan met with Niger President Mamadou Tandja and other government officials, as well as visiting Zinder, which lies 900 km east of the capital as part of a trip aimed at keeping attention firmly focused on the food crisis.

"Yesterday in Zinder, I saw skeletal babies, between life and death. Their mothers had walked great distances to find the help that would save them," the UN boss recounted. "And if more aid doesn't come in quickly, there is the risk that the crisis will get worse over the course of the coming weeks."

The UN estimates that almost a third of Niger's 12 million population are affected by food insecurity, with 2.5 million identified as extremely vulnerable and requiring food assistance.

On the eve of Annan's trip, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been treating thousands of Niger's malnourished children, criticised the UN's handling of the emergency.

Annan on Wednesday declined to be drawn into the debate.

"I think this is an unfortunate debate. What is important is for all of us to focus on providing emergency aid to those in need," he told reporters "For those who are hungry, and need food, this debate that we are having is totally irrelevant."

Annan along with other senior UN officials wants to see a 10-fold increase in the UN's worldwide emergency funds, which would bring them to US $500 million, so that aid agencies can jump-start operations.

"We have to establish a fund which will allow us to act as soon as possible instead of waiting for donations," he said. "With such a fund we could act straightaway."

While visiting Niger, Annan also stressed the importance of developing a longer term strategy for tackling the root causes of the food crises, which have also affected other countries across the Sahel belt, including Mali and Burkina Faso, to a lesser degree.

While last year's drought and locust invasions contributed to Niger's food crisis, even in a good year Niger struggles to feed itself. More than 80 percent of the country's 12 million people rely on subsistence farming and cattle rearing and the semi-desert terrain is unkind to crops.