Famine in Niger

IMF policies lead to starvation and death

Across the African continent, a food crisis of catastrophic proportions is again emerging, leaving 16.4 million across southern Africa and 17.9 million in the Horn of Africa in desperate and immediate need of food. In West Africa’s Sahel region, millions are also slowly starving to death. In Niger, the worst affected country, some 3.6 million people are threatened by famine, with 2.5 million, including 800,000 children, on the brink of starvation. The famine has been blamed on a severe drought and an invasion of desert locusts, the worst in 15 years, which devastated crops across the Sahel between August and October 2004. But the catastrophe that exists in Niger today is the creation of imperialism.

Cereal prices have risen sharply since 2000; millet, a staple grain, has doubled in price since last year. It is not food availability but food affordability that is at the root of the unfolding tragedy. There is enough food to feed the hungry in Niger, which exports grain to wealthier neighbours Nigeria and Ghana, but the poor cannot afford to buy it. Some 32,000 children are severely malnourished and with the outbreak of deadly diseases such as cholera, malaria and diarrhoea, children are dying even in feeding centres.

Starvation and malnutrition are not new in Niger. A 1998 Food and Agriculture Organisation report revealed: ‘rates of malnutrition among children are high throughout [Niger]: over 32% are stunted – half of them severely...over 15% are wasted, and over 36% [now 40%] are underweight.’ With 63% of Niger’s population living in grinding poverty, an abysmal public health system, limited access to sanitation facilities, 14% literacy rates, life expectancy of 42 years and infant mortality of 250 per 1,000 live births, there was little to cushion the effects of this famine, the most severe to date. Despite its huge reserves of uranium and gold, Niger is the second poorest country in the world.

Food availability
Erratic rains, rising oil prices and severe localised locust damage meant total grain production decreased last year, compared to 2003, by 27% in Senegal, 35% in Chad and 44% in Mauritania, as well as in coastal countries which subsequently imposed food export restrictions. However, decreases in the major cereal-producing Sahelian nations of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger were modest. Total grain production in 2004 was about 3.14 million tonnes, 11% below Niger’s five yearly average, but 22% higher than the 2000 season, when there was no major food crisis.

Niger is a food deficit country and even in a normal year imports significant amounts of cereal to offset national shortfalls, estimated in 2005 to be over 0.5 million tonnes. Niger’s main trading partners are Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, but Nigeria has recently adopted a series of IMF and World Bank directed structural reforms to its agricultural and trade policies. This has led to unprecedented domestic rises in staple grain prices and lower outflows of grain from Nigeria. The impact of these policies were felt the most by Niger, and were augmented by lower than normal food supplies in coastal countries such as Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire.

Response to the famine – the IMF wades in Appeals for food aid in November 2004 by Niger’s government and UN agencies were ignored by the ‘international community’, including the G8 and Live8 circus; by 18 June 2005 only one pledge of $650,000 had been received. Only after BBC coverage of dying children did more pledges come in, but by August 2005, the UN’s appeal for $30.7 million had still not been met.

The Niger government and the UN’s World Food Programme had opposed the distribution of free food in affected southern regions, on the basis it would interfere with the free market and disrupt Niger’s development out of poverty! The EU and IMF urged the selling off of emergency food reserves, so as not to ‘flood the market’. In February 2005, the Niger government sold cereal such as millet in affected areas at subsidised prices. The poor still couldn’t afford it and continued to starve. In March the government raised VAT on basic consumer goods such as milk, flour and grains by 19%, a condition for further IMF loans and the 100% debt relief promised as part of the much-criticised Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative, imposed by EU finance ministers including Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown. The Niger government is absolutely determined to push through with the HIPC programme and a related Poverty Reduction Strategy which demands the pursuit of ‘prudent macroeconomic policies, vigorous implementation of the structural reform agenda – especially in the public enterprise and financial sectors – and the development of a close dialogue with the private sector on economic policymaking’. This also requires the privatisation of the state banking, electricity and petroleum-importing companies.

In June the government adopted a food loan scheme whereby it gave two million subsistence farmers a bag of seeds and a bag of fertiliser each. It wasn’t until 13 July that the Niger government, the EU and UN, faced with mass protests and the death of untold numbers of children, agreed to distribute free food. Even then the aid wasn’t getting to those most in need and was unsuitable for malnourished children – but then aid is big business. Western manufacturers of tents, generators and high-energy emergency food supplies are doing very nicely, thank you, while the children of Niger continue to starve.
Charles Chinweizu

FRFI 187 October / November 2005