Aterrible famine has taken hold of Niger, despite warnings sounded almost a year ago by aid agencies and the United Nations. Nearly 12 million people, or about 80 per cent of the population, are now food insecure. In the four worst-affected provinces, one child in five is malnourished, and the country's Global Acute Malnutrition rate for under-fives has risen from 12.3 per cent to 16.7 per cent in a year. Comparisons have been made with the 1984 Ethiopian famine. Niger, for its part, is one of the poorest countries on the planet, and its Human Development Index is the lowest. It has the world's highest raw birth rate; on average, every woman has seven children, and 20 per cent of the children are unlikely to reach the age of five. Secondly, this year's drought, which followed the unusually heavy and destructive rain in 2009, has been a severe setback to the people's own success in reclaiming three million hectares of desert; in addition to destroying crops and killing cattle, it has wrecked the purchasing power of the 90 per cent of the population who depend on agriculture. Thirdly, neoliberal agriculture policies mean that Niger exports food to neighbouring countries. Unlike many other countries, Niger cannot import enough food to compensate for insufficient domestic production.
The international response to the famine has been slow and grudging. Donations so far amount to less than half the $348 million promised. The U.S., the U.K., and the EU have met their commitments, but several other states are yet to contribute. Some of the latter have lucrative uranium mining operations in Niger; those have, however, been criticised for causing radioactive contamination and related diseases. The news magazine Der Spiegel has called Niger the Saudi Arabia of uranium production, but ordinary citizens have hardly benefited from this industry. If there is anything good about the situation, it is that the military government which took over in a coup earlier this year is, unlike its civilian predecessor, not denying the problem. Given the country's poverty, sheer size (it covers nearly twice the area of Texas), and woeful infrastructure, the government cannot deal with the famine on its own. Unless the rest of the world responds much faster and more generously, Niger will continue to suffer what the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Food, Jean Ziegler, calls “silent mass murder.”