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Interview with John M. Staatz on Nigerís food crisis

Interviewer: Lionel Beehner
Interviewee: John M. Staatz
August 16, 2005

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Locust swarms and a lack of rainfall have caused severe food shortages in Niger, leaving more than 2.5 million people in danger of starving to death. John M. Staatz, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, says the situation in Niger requires long-term development, not just short-term aid, and cites nearby Mali as an example for combating future famines.

What caused the latest food crisis in Niger?

A widespread lack of income growth over a number of years, combined with a period of climatic and other shocks like the locusts, pushed people over the edge into destitution. But I think this year’s famine, or food crisis, is more of an income collapse than, necessarily, a shortage of food. You had last year’s short rainfall, which hurt both crop and pasture production, and you had the locusts, which hit primarily pastures more than crops. So all the people up north who rely on animals had to start moving them south early. A lot of the livestock died, so people had to sell their animals quickly, which led the price of animals—cattle, goat, sheep—to fall. At the same time, you had a reduction in crop production, so the price of basic grains, such as millet, started going up.

What do you mean by “income collapse”?

Their ability to acquire food collapsed. It wasn’t that there absolutely was no food available, but the food available got priced out of most people’s market because the price of food went up while prices of what they had to sell, mainly livestock, collapsed.

What’s the difference between a famine and a food crisis?

A famine, in my mind, is more widespread. You’ve got thousands and thousands of people dying of malnutrition. I think in a food crisis, people are still hurting, but it isn’t generalized over a large area. I see the press referring to the situation in Mali, for example, as a famine. It’s not; it’s a food crisis, because in Mali, at least, food prices are coming down.

How can we prevent future food shortages in western Africa?

We really need to focus on long-term development. In these countries, where you’re dealing primarily with agrarian populations, you have to focus on how to get agriculture going as a motor that will drive the rest of the economy, and then you can begin tapping some of that income to invest in a better health system, education, and so on. [The West] has pulled away from supporting higher education in agricultural training in these countries because it has a very long-term payoff, and funding agencies have to respond to congresses and parliaments that want to see quick results. If you train a better entomologist who figures out for Niger a better way of treating locusts, that’s a ten-to-fifteen-year investment; that’s not something you can go back in six months to Congress and say, “look at this great result.” If you can show them pictures of airplanes flying in with food relief, that’s something visible to point to. But that’s dealing with a crisis after it’s happened.

So just sending more aid is not the answer?

I don’t think it’s just a matter of sending more aid. It depends on what kind of aid. Are you dealing with more emergency aid, aimed at trying to relieve human suffering in a short-term crisis, or development aid, which is aimed at trying to get those countries to the point where these crises don’t occur? Last year in Ethiopia, the United States spent approximately $500 million in food aid and $4 million on agricultural-development aid. Well, that’s dealing with a short-term crisis without doing much to avoid the next crisis. However, clearly when people are starving you’ve got to respond.

What’s your take on Niger’s president downplaying the famine?

There’s some controversy within these countries over how severe the crisis is. Some groups have been perceived by some people as trying to make it look more severe, particularly the UN World Food Program, for whatever reason. They’re in the business of emergency relief. They see crises, and they want to react to them. Naturally, you can overestimate the problem or you can underestimate the problem. If you overestimate the problem and bring in too much food aid, you may have some disruptive effects on the economy. But if you really underestimate it, a lot of people die. Part of the moral dilemma is if you bring in too much [food aid], you solve the immediate crisis but you undermine longer-term development. What does that do to lives lost over the long run if a country stays mired in poverty?

So then what would you recommend?

If you had a local public-works program that could get up really quickly, employ those people, give them some income or give them food as payment, then that’s a way of dealing with relief without undermining the market. That’s a strategy that India, Botswana, and parts of southern Africa have really developed over the years. It’s something some of these western African countries are beginning to think about; it’s developmentally friendly relief that isn’t a conflict between relief and development. The World Food Program is also trying to think about better ways of [providing relief]. 

Is there concern that emergency aid creates dependency?

There’s always concern you will create dependency. It’s often feared by some that if you give people food, they’re less likely to grow it themselves. There’s also a real concern about corruption, and of hopelessness, that this is something that’s never going to be solved, which creates donor fatigue. We need more press on some of the success stories you never hear about. In Africa, there’ve been some remarkable successes, like Mozambique, which went from abject civil war to something a lot better. I think Mali’s another case; there are occasional crises, but it’s no longer the hundreds of thousands of people who were starving in the mid-70s during the great famines of the Sahel.

Why do you think the international community was so slow to respond to what was happening in Niger? Were we simply distracted by other more pressing events, perhaps the war in Iraq, or the tsunami earlier this year?

I think people—in [the United States] and in various relief agencies—get focused on the crisis of the day, and if there’s something building quietly in the background, even though some people may be trying to draw attention to it, it gets less attention. In the press, everybody wakes up only when they see pictures of the dying kid. It’s often too late by then.

But compare the crisis [in Niger] to Mali, for example, where the donors have invested over twenty-five years, developing a good agricultural market-information system, what they call a local early warning system [for famines]. Malians knew pretty early where locusts were exactly and what was happening in the markets, and so there was a lot more information out there for people to plan ahead.

What other lessons have the Malians learned from Niger’s food crisis?

I think the Malians have done a pretty good job in managing this crisis, and part of that was getting the information out to all the actors quickly about what was going on. Also, there was an explicit aim by the government to engage the private sector as a partner rather than seeing merchants as an enemy. Most of the food that’s coming in [to the region] is from the private sector. You want to give [merchants] a clear signal so they go out and act; a lot of the time, they’re reticent because they’re not sure if the government, or donor community, is going to come in with tons of food aid and ruin their investments.

Nigerand Mali are multiparty democracies. Is [Bengali economist] Amartya Sen’s theory that famines never occur in democracies no longer applicable?

I don’t think there’s a famine in Mali. But hunger isn’t necessarily resolved by a parliamentary debate. There is an open press, for instance, in Mali, to help alert people where the problems are. But you could flip it around: Public-opinion surveys done in Mali asked Malians what the most important political issue to them was, and they said food security. People didn’t have enough to eat. If you don’t solve that problem, then I think democracy is under threat.

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