We must give cash, not food, to the starving in Niger

Rains have failed. Crop production has been wiped out. Families cannot feed themselves. Soon familiar images of skeletal babies will flicker on TV screens. The British public will be asked to respond with their usual generosity and that, together with government aid, will save thousands of lives — although others will be lost. Then the world will move on until somewhere, probably in Africa, it will happen again.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A hunger crisis is brewing in Niger, one of Africa’s poorest countries. Millions will be left without enough food this summer. The early-warning systems have sounded and the British Government has sent £25 million to the region. But the problem is not lack of food, but lack of money.

There is enough food in Niger to feed everyone but, as I found out on a visit this month, the poor cannot afford to buy it. Farming families I met have had their incomes wiped out by a failed harvest and livestock losses.

So the best away to stave off a humanitarian emergency is not to flood the country with emergency food rations, but to make sure that families can afford to buy food. That means thinking in new ways about how we do aid: offering temporary work in agriculture to people whose income has disappeared, distributing drought-resistant
seeds so the next planting season does not fail, and providing the specialist equipment needed to grow crops in arid conditions.

In some areas it is already too late, so we need a more radical approach. In parts of Niger where food is available but not affordable, we should urgently distribute small amounts of cash to the poorest families so that they can eat. This will stimulate the local economy, helping traders to survive the hungry season — and is cheaper and easier to move money
around than food.

We need to pay particular attention to helping the under-fives, whose bodies succumb faster to a lack of food. It costs less to stop children becoming malnourished than it does to bring them back from the brink of death — £5 supplements a child’s diet for a month, compared with £80 to treat a case of severe malnutrition.

Niger could represent a radical shift in how we respond to hunger crises. For the first time, its Government is fully involved in attempts to prevent a full-blown crisis. By simply asking for help, as it did last October, the Niger Government ensured that alarms were heard around the world. Its call deserves to be answered.

Cash transfers, targeted feeding programmes and a health project aimed at the under-fives would be enough to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis. Such programmes could be set up quickly and at a fraction of the cost of a full-scale disaster response. But at the moment, we don’t have enough money. Humanitarian donors must do more if
we are to succeed.

It will not take anything extraordinary to avoid another hunger disaster in Africa this summer. The solution lies in simple steps that will protect local agriculture and give people the cash they need to buy food, together with a co-ordinated response from governments and agencies. Such initiatives represent a cheap, effective and rational
response to the situation unfolding in Niger. There is still time for an unexpectedly good twist in this grindingly familiar tale.

Justin Forsyth is chief executive of Save the Children.

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