Niger: too weak to cry

Children living in Niger’s hunger belt fall into two groups: those who receive help from aid agencies like Save the Children before they become malnourished, and those who must wait until hunger has pushed them to the very brink of survival to receive support.

The first group come from families who receive aid such as cash grants so they can buy food and other essential supplies during the lean season, meaning that they are protected from the worst effects of hunger.

A child sits on a bed at the stabilisation centre in Aguie, Niger, 7 August 2012

After a failed harvest in the autumn of 2011 saw food prices soar and hunger threaten another slow motion catastrophe for Niger, such grants have prevented thousands of the country’s poorest children from becoming dangerously malnourished.

But others have missed out. The aid effort in Niger has remained chronically underfunded, and that’s meant there’s not been enough money to provide cash to everyone who needs it.

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For every child playing happily in their village thanks to the early help they’ve received, there is another who becomes sick before aid reaches them.

These are Niger’s unlucky ones, the children for whom help came too late.

In Aguié, in southern Niger, you find them in the district’s special hospital ward for malnourished children. They lie with their mothers on vinyl mattresses, limbs flopping, heads lolling, because they do not have the strength to hold themselves up.

Too weak to cry

In the recovery ward, they scream and sob, but in a corner reserved for the most serious cases, the children make no sound. They are too weak to cry.

Often they are from villages that receive some cash support, but not enough to protect all the families there. Their mothers have looked on as their neighbours’ children have been fed, wondering why there is not enough for them.  Haliba, the mother of two year-old Mansour, is one of them.

As she cradles her tiny baby, she explains her desperation. “I try to find wood to sell, but sometimes I have to beg my neighbours for food,” she says. “I feel I have lost my dignity. I have lost myself.  Some days, there is only enough food for the children to have one meal, and I don’t eat at all.”

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There is nothing inevitable about this situation. It is true that funding for the emergency in Niger has come earlier than ever before, but that money is often for projects that last months, rather than the years required to tackle the underlying drivers of Niger’s food insecurity.

Each emergency is treated as a separate disaster, requiring a short-term response, rather than the acute phase of a chronic food crisis that has been ongoing for years.

Hunger here will not be stamped out until its fundamental drivers- lack of social protection, over-reliance on rain-fed crops, and a booming population- are tackled.

Golden Olympic opportunity

This weekend, world leaders, senior aid agency officials, businessmen and humanitarian donors will gather in London for the Olympic hunger summit, aimed at reducing malnutrition around the world.

If those attending the hunger summit commit to tackling the causes of hunger, rather than just its effects, London’s Olympics could leave behind more than fantastic sporting memories.

By building and funding programmes that will work for years rather than months, they could change the lives of thousands of the world’s poorest children.

Niger may not have won a medal at the Games, but for the unlucky ones I met this week, that would be a legacy worth its weight in gold.

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