Beyond the crisis in Niger

Most NGOs and UN agencies in Niger agree that in 2010 humanitarian actors are better geared to respond to the food security crisis than they were in 2005, but some say there is a risk of repeating mistakes in information-sharing, planning appropriate responses, and raising funds more quickly.

"There are similarities to 2005 that donors and the aid community must heed in order to avert a disaster in 2010," warned CARE, an NGO focusing on poverty eradication, in a communiqué on 26 April.


A government declaration of critical food insecurity on 11 March, with an appeal for international assistance, helped mobilize agencies and donors, said Clare Sayce of CARE International. IRIN spoke to several UN agencies, international NGOs and donors in Niamey, Niger's capital, about responding to the crisis.

Things have changed since 2005: more humanitarian actors are already on the ground; early warning and information-sharing systems are in use; long-term programmes to help communities recover have been running since 2005; the government is more engaged and open to accepting outside help; coordination systems work better now.

"In February 2005, when MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières, the global medical charity] raised concerns of an emerging crisis, few agencies had sufficient teams in place on the ground to pick up the call, and no significant mobilization took place until June and July," said Stephane Heymans, head of MSF in Niger.

''We are far from reaching an adequate level of resources ... more non-traditional donors need to respond''

The malnutrition dynamics were also different in 2005, when admissions to nutrition centres rose steeply in February, whereas in 2010 a sharp rise of 35 percent over the previous week was only experienced last week at their centre in Gidan Roumji, near Maradi in southern Niger.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) set up partnerships with a few NGOs in 2005, but now has ongoing projects with 20 international and national partners, Felicité Tchibindat, the agency's West and Central Africa nutrition adviser, told IRIN. 

Early analysis of food security and nutrition rates, food and fodder prices, and how cereal markets were functioning, helped warn actors of a pending crisis in October 2009, said Gianluca Ferrera, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Niamey.

"My discussions with the humanitarian community indicate coordination and mobilization is much better than it has been ... though we could always do better," UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told IRIN.

Tchibindat noted that from January to mid-April 2010, UNICEF registered 50,000 children with severe malnutrition at feeding centres - about 11,500 per month. This was significantly higher than in 2009, but still not as steep a jump as in 2005.

Over half of Niger's population needs humanitarian assistance, with some 378,000 children currently at risk of severe malnutrition.

Avoid cookie-cutter response

"Agencies must take into account that no two emergencies are alike, and the situation today is different than in 2005," said MSF's Heymans. Although the food deficit is far higher - 30 percent - food is available in markets, whereas in 2005 it largely was not.

In 2005 Niger continued to export cereals, while imports from Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria stopped or declined; now cereals are flowing in as a result of good regional food production and favourable exchange-rates between the Nigerian naira and the CFA used in Niger, said Malik Allaouna, Regional Emergency Manager at Save the Children, which promotes child rights.

Three years of poor production have driven up food prices putting food beyond the reach of poor families. "Purchasing power must be included as a key indicator of food security ... Production deficits provide only a snapshot of reality and do not always lead to the most correct response," he told IRIN.

"We would like to see more cash activities taking place, as this is more efficient and much faster than food distribution, and could lend dynamism to the market to encourage imports to continue."

WFP's Ferrera told IRIN there was always a tendency to compare one crisis to another, but "it is premature and risky to say if this is worse or less worse than 2005 ... the thing we do know, is we have a big problem here now."


Donors are responding more quickly in 2010 than they did in 2005, when many NGOs were under-funded until August, said CARE's Sayce, but this crisis is expected to peak in June and July, which requires faster, larger-scale mobilization now.

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More needed to avoid catastrophe

The UN-NGO 2010 joint humanitarian appeal for Niger is only 30 percent funded, and all support is targeted to food security, none to nutrition, water and sanitation or coordination.

Sayce said some donors, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID) have responded more quickly through new funding mechanisms, such as the West Africa humanitarian response fund, but noted that donors were channeling much of their resources to Haiti.

Tchibindat told IRIN that although UNICEF's funding had arrived quickly, "There are gaps [in funding] ... but Niger is still in a better position than Chad, where there are few donors and few NGOs." UNICEF faces a shortfall in pledges of $5 million of the $23 million it requested, but just 56 percent of that request is already in the pipeline.

WFP head Ferrera said donors in the country were engaging well, but "we are far from reaching an adequate level of resources ... more non-traditional donors need to respond."

So far WFP has planned 80,000mt of food aid against an estimated need of 162,000mt; while the government has a further 20,000mt, according to the agency.

Mobilizing slowly

Agencies were gearing up much more quickly than they did in 2005, and the first food distributions to children aged 6 to 23 months started on 28 April in the village of Korelam in Zinder, southern Niger, according to UNICEF and WFP.

Nevertheless, "The food pipeline is still too slow, considering actors have known about the crisis since October," said MSF's Heymans. WFP's West Africa office said getting food into landlocked Niger was a difficult logistical challenge.

An NGO representative who asked to remain unnamed said there was little information about where or when WFP food would arrive - stronger humanitarian leadership in the form of a designated humanitarian emergency coordinator might give agencies and donors the push they needed, and boost information-sharing and coordination among responding agencies.

UNICEF's Tchibindat would like broader scrutiny of the crisis response. "We are learning lessons from 2005 in Niger, but these need to be applied to the rest of the Sahel region, which is also suffering crises and has fewer donors or humanitarian actors in place."