In a world brimming with territorial conflict, UN nuclear ultimatums, rogue missile launches, and the ever-looming threat of catastrophic terror attacks, how can a drought-ridden nation of twelve million people win attention, let alone desperately needed assistance? For Americans, sadly, Niger more likely conjures up "yellowcake uranium" (GlobalSecurity.org) or "Valerie Plame" (SourceWatch) than anything else. Yet a food crisis exists there, and the World Food Program predicts more trouble ahead (BBC). The UN agency already feeds 1.5 million of Niger's people, and predicts that number will double by September. In effect, the fate of a quarter of the country's population rests with international relief agencies and NGOs.
The lack of potable water, a problem which haunts almost every corner of Africa—as this Backgrounder explains—exacerbates Niger's woes. According to the World Health Organization, which ranks Niger as the second poorest nation on the planet, access to potable water is an issue for virtually all the country's population. The drought which began in 2004 and repeated over the next two planting seasons has left up to one third of the country without enough food.
Niger's cyclical droughts, like many of those across the African continent, do not in and of themselves create crisis. Poor agricultural practices which encourage "desertification," internal migration from rural areas to big cities, ignorance of basic sanitary realities that pollute existing water resources, political corruption and incompetence, plus an infrastructure little improved—and in some cases, severely eroded—since the days of French rule all exacerbate problems associated with sparse rainfall. The UN's Development Program report on Niger in 2004 provides additional context (PDF in French).
These precipitating factors recently sparked a hot debate in NGO circles over the "crisis" model of responding to Africa's needs. Many argue the chronic weakness of Niger and similar nations will never be addressed by celebrity benefit concerts and parachute journalism. CFR's Africa Task Force lends credence to this view, arguing the United States' Africa policy must move beyond the "outdated and counterproductive" view of Africa as "simply the object of humanitarian concerns or a charity cause."
Niger presents a case in point, rich in energy and other resources, yet otherwise destitute. Last summer, when the world's media suddenly shone a spotlight on Niger in an effort to highlight the need for donations, President Mamadou Tandja argued instead for funds to develop longer-term improvements to infrastructure. Many aid agencies responded with their own charges of cynicism directed at Tandja. Yet some experts, including NYU's William Easterly, agreed oversimplification of the issues risked treating symptoms at the expense of the larger disease. A UN World Food Program official, Nicholas Crawford, and Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, director of the pan-Africanist group Justice Africa, debated the issue on the BBC's website.
The BBC recently tackled the region's endemic water and food shortages in a series, including an interactive map of the continent's food needs. MSNBC.com offers this list of NGOs accepting donations to help those in need in Niger.