Having experienced a series of droughts and food security crises over the past 40 years, Niger is now looking to move beyond simply countering emergencies, investing instead in development and recovery strategies - and changing gear in its efforts to feed a rapidly expanding, highly vulnerable population.
The need for new approaches in tackling malnutrition and chronic food insecurity has been one of the main themes of the Conférence Internationale sur la Sécurité Alimentaire et Nutritionnelle au Niger (CISAN), a two-day scientific and technical gathering in Niamey.
But is Niger ready to make the necessary changes? The country was at the epicentre of the Sahelian food crisis in 2010. Among those worst affected by the food shortages were children, with NGOs recording dramatic rates of severe acute malnutrition (SAM).
The government recognizes that tackling child malnutrition problems is crucial, and has been running an annual feeding scheme in partnership with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), targeting children aged 6-23 months. The programme reaches 200,000-300,000 children in a normal year, but the number shot past 600,000 in 2010 as the food crisis took hold.
“The timing is right,” said Guido Cornale, the UNICEF representative in Niger. He stressed that donors would be willing to invest more in nutrition interventions if they realized the country was serious about tackling malnutrition.
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Development experts have warned that Niger requires long-term sustainable intervention if it is to avoid facing the same scenarios year in year out. Conference contributors emphasized the need to increase the quantity and quality of food and to secure better access to it, while also raising awareness about hygiene, the importance of a balanced diet and the nutritional value of different kinds of food.
Appeal for more resources
Dr Guero Maimouna from Niger’s Public Health Ministry (MSP) said the country had come through two crises in the past six years and had gained the necessary experience to take on bigger and longer-term interventions.
“But to do that we require resources. We are using our existing resources and money to handle the huge problem that we have at hand… We have a large population of malnourished children every year.”
Everyone is hoping the money that long-term interventions can attract will enable Niger to find sustainable solutions.
“You cannot rely on short-term emergency interventions - which are brought in at great cost - forever,” said Charlotte Dufour of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). She stressed the importance of teaching people to do the best with what they had.
Traditional beliefs hamper progress
Recurring drought and the subsequent decline in agricultural production left Niger without food, but the main causes of malnutrition were traditional beliefs about food that prevented people from eating balanced meals, said Mele Djalo, head of health and social action in the prime minister’s office.
“For example, the Fula people, who live in the Maradi Region, do not eat fish; then we have ethnic groupings which consider chicken dirty; some don’t eat eggs, and so on. Creating awareness across these communities is a very difficult job and it requires resources,” she said.
The MSP’s Maimouna acknowledged that in some parts of Niger rations of fortified corn-soya blend, cooking oil and sugar were an attractive package for a family with no food or income: “They keep bringing their child back sick, as the mothers sell the rations given for the child.”
UNICEF’s Cornale said at the height of the 2010 food crisis they discovered that the monthly ration meant for a child lasted only a week. “We found that the families did not have any food and were consuming the rations.”
|If you go to areas where there are no NGOs, there are no efforts under way to treat malnutrition|
UNICEF then started a large cash transfer programme in the southwestern Maradi and Tahoua regions, targeting 35,000 households with about $126 each over three months to protect the children’s rations. An independent evaluation found the measure had been effective. “Families used 80 percent of the money to buy food,” Cornale said.
There are no national safety net programmes, but food was subsidized in times of crisis, and some emergency distributions were made.
Conference participants debated whether communities should be trained to treat moderate malnutrition, which has a high incidence and affects almost half the children in some areas. An aid worker pointed out that communities were often unable to handle cases of malaria or even severe diarrhoea.
Stéphane Doyon, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nutrition campaign, said their research had shown it was more effective to provide blanket feeding for all children aged 6-24 months in vulnerable areas as a response to moderate chronic malnutrition, and rather use the limited resources, including personnel, to just treat children with SAM.
Malam Kanta Issa of Forum Santé Niger (FORSANI), a local NGO comprising medical professionals, said there was a lack of budgetary support for improving health services. “If you go to areas where there are no NGOs, there are no efforts under way to treat malnutrition.” Aid workers pointed out that they had lobbied to get nutrition on the conference agenda.
Nevertheless, infant mortality has been a declining trend, and the UN Millennium Goal to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015 might be the only one Niger is on track to achieve.
“There are 2,100 health posts in this country, which manage malnutrition in the rural areas,” UNICEF’s Cornale noted. “They seem to be doing their work.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions