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October 11, 2005

Nicholas Kristof: Year After Year, Grave After Grave.

Nick Kristoff picks up on something that regular readers here will know about, the inadequacy of the methods of food aid delivery.

Goure, Niger -- Welcome to the most wretched country
in the world.

Niger is dead last of the 177 nations ranked in the
latest U.N. Human Development Report, based on its
heartbreaking rates of poverty, illiteracy and
mortality. On a 650-mile drive across the country from
the Niger capital, Niamey, to this eastern city of
Goure, I stopped in village after village where
peasants told of young children dying of starvation in
the last few months. One man named Haroun Mani had
just buried three of his eight children.

''They didn't have enough to eat, and then they got
diarrhea and weakened and died,'' he explained. None
had seen a doctor; in Niger, there is one doctor for
every 33,000 people.

Granted, it's difficult for Western readers who are
dieting to comprehend people who are starving. But
Niger seems a good place to ponder the failings of a
system of international aid that is often irrational
and catastrophically inept, leading to the deaths of
those children, Suraj, 5, Barida, 3, and Hawau, 2 --
along with millions more across the continent.

A crucial mistake is our refusal to provide
substantial agricultural assistance to increase
African food production. Instead, we ship tons of food
in emergency aid after people have already started
dying. It's like a policy of scrimping on manhole
covers because we're too busy rescuing people who fall
into manholes.

In Niger, it has been apparent since the beginning of
this year that a food crisis was coming, but the world
ignored a U.N. emergency appeal for $3 million in aid
in February. Then in July, BBC television showed
wrenching images of children dying. Niger promptly
received more aid in the last 10 days of July than it
had received in the previous eight months.

In fact, the situation is more complex than the
television images suggest. The reality is that people
in Niger are always starving.

''There was a crisis last year, and there'll be a
crisis next year,'' said Claude Dunn, who runs the
World Food Program office in Maradi. This year's
crisis was especially bad, but year in, year out,
160,000 children under the age of 5 die in Niger --
one child in four never reaches 5. In other words,
every single week this small country faces a
9/11-sized toll, composed entirely of dead children.
And yet no one is declaring: We are all Nigeriens.

One problem is that U.S. law generally requires our
food aid to be purchased in American markets and
transported on American ships. The upshot is that much
of the donation is wasted on shipping costs, the aid
is delayed, and when it arrives our grain risks
depressing local prices and long-term production
incentives. To his credit, President Bush has pushed
to ease this requirement, but members of Congress are
blocking him, because they value farmers' votes more
than African lives.

Above all, we need a major new international
initiative to extend the green revolution to Africa.
Farmers in tropical Africa get only 1,500 pounds of
cereal grain per acre, compared with 4,900 pounds in
China. Pedro Sanchez, an agricultural expert at
Columbia University, has estimated that Africans could
triple food production if they used modern seeds and

In the village of Angaual Goge Haouna, where seven
children died in the last few months of starvation,
villagers said they wanted more fertilizer above all,
as well as better seeds and help exploiting a nearby
lake for irrigation.

''I'm not only using the same techniques as my
grandfather, I'm actually using the same implements,''
said Momom Bukhary, a 63-year-old man. ''And this land
used to be far more productive than it is now. When I
was young, the annual harvest would last a full year,
longer in good times. Now it only lasts three months,
and then we run out of food.''

A major reason is that the soil has been depleted of
nutrients. But in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers apply an
average of 9 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare,
compared with 206 kilos in industrialized countries.

In the news business, we don't lead with headlines
like ''Millions of Children Dying in Africa,'' because
that's not actually news. It's the wallpaper.

Yet realities like that should inspire our priorities.
And we're not even using our aid money wisely. Unless
we help start a green revolution in Africa, we'll be
back in Niger year after year -- and every village
will be surrounded by more tiny graves.

Some further reading on the subject perhaps? Me, blogging? Here, here and here is Owen Barder, here’s Aunty Marianne, me again at Techcentralstation, well, do you need any more? Nice to see that it makes the mainstream at least.

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October 11, 2005 in Make Poverty History | Permalink


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It's a good article alright. Heartening to see him calling for more aid to African agriculture, which is exactly what it needs, though I seem to recall you frequently arguing against more aid to Africa.

It's also interesting that he reserves his greatest criticism for the American system of food aid, while noting that if people had listened to the UN earlier the crisis wouldn't have got so bad. Again, this seems to contradict your views as expressed in that TCS piece.

Lastly, there's no mention of the UN's food distribution "Killing people", which is what you claimed. I'm still waiting for any confirmation whatsoever that this has taken place. Of course, you didn't wait for it to actually happen - you just accused the UN of killing people in the future.

Okay, I'll try to be constructive here. The lesson of Kristof's article (and just about every other report coming out of Niger) is that the fundamental problem is poverty. Reducing that poverty will be a slow process, but aid and debt relief will help (incredibly, a few years ago Niger's government had to spend 50% of its revenues on debt service). The fundamental requirement is for a Green Revolution in Africa. That's the kind of thing the Millennium Village Project is trying to promote, and with encouraging early results (see http://blog.ctrlbreak.co.uk/archives/000355.html )

Posted by: Jim | Oct 11, 2005 1:38:50 PM

Before I'm accused of being some sort of racist murderer, let me say that if Africa could confidently feed its population every year this would be a wonderful thing. Firstly, people would not be dying. Secondly the rich nations would not need to keep spending vast sums to just to keep Africans alive (they could be spent educating Africans, and helping them develop their economies).

I'll be the first to admit that I know very little about Nigerien agriculture, or Niger as a country, for that matter. But I would suspect that a great deal of farming is done by peasant farmers on subsistence plots. I would also suspect that the urban population of Niger has grown massively over the past twenty to thirty years. Quite possibly, to maintain urban peace, the price of basic foodstuffs has been controlled as have imports. Add to this the anecdotal evidence that land productivity has fallen for whatever reason and it is evident that this disaster could have been predicted ten years ago rather than ten months ago.

Kristof scratches the surface of the problem, but I believe that there are fundamental changes that need to be made for Niger and much of the rest of Africa to be able to move from its current hand to mouth existence.

Peasant farming, while appealing politically, just doesn't allow the participants to devlop because they have no access to capital or technology. Nor do peasant farmers have much time to spare for the education they need to embrace new techniques. Price control discourages farmers from producing the needed surpluses or simply drives them from the land altogether. Collectivisation has proved disasterous both in Africa and around the world. About the only system that has allowed societies to move from an agrarian to a modern state is some form of commercialisation.

Unfortunately, to the liberal/socialist mindset the very word "commercialisation" conjures up images of fat landowners grinding peasants' faces into the dust and is thus anathema. To its great misfortune most of the "advisors" inflicted on Africa by the first world have subscribed to this dogma.

Reviewing the aid policies of the US and europe is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. What is needed is a genuine revolution in the way Africa produces and distributes food.


Tim adds: All true but a lot doesn’t apply to Niger. They’ve had free market food policies there for nearly a decade. This famine was about a fall in purchasing power in one section of the population. Just like Sen described.

Posted by: Remittance Man | Oct 11, 2005 4:02:21 PM

Spot on. Apparently saint Bob Gelfdorf missed it completely. Corruption is the other big side of the problem.

Posted by: javaricho | Oct 12, 2005 4:39:45 AM

How about sending a boatload of contraceptives and instructions on how to use them?
EIGHT CHILDREN!!!!And he can't even feed himself.
How irresponsible can you get?? Surely , unless
the excess breeding is stopped they will never
be able to feed themselves.

Posted by: TP | Oct 12, 2005 4:53:33 AM

TP - Send the boatload of contraceptives, by all means (I'm not going to even try and number how many millions of condoms I have paid for) but spare us the patronising "irresponsible" tag. Let the hetero Western man who can be absolutely certain he was never the cause of a pregnancy scare (or an infection) cast the first stone.

Most of the time, you guys never find out unless it's a real one and even then not always; oddly enough it's because women don't think you can handle the responsibility.

Posted by: auntymarianne | Oct 12, 2005 5:37:25 PM

yes, a shrinking population, that would probably do wonders for the productive potential of Niger.

Posted by: dsquared | Oct 12, 2005 7:49:42 PM