1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. West Africa
  4. Niger

Life just gets tougher in world’s poorest country

[Niger] Niger, The Saheal Twareg and Pleu herdsmen extract water from a rare well for their cattle. [Date picture taken: 2005/08/11]
The Sahel is the poorest region in the world (Edward Parsons/IRIN)

While Niger is at peace, each year it faces an increasingly difficult battle against hunger. What it needs to win the war, according to its people, are not sacks of food but a long-term international commitment to help haul the country out of crippling poverty.

Rated the world’s poorest country according to UN statistics, Niger is more impoverished today than it was 30 years ago, with more than 60 percent of the population surviving on less than US $1 a day.

“We have peace here in Niger, that’s true, but we have hunger,” said Issa Haladou who lives in the southeast Zinder region, one of the hardest hit by food shortages last year. “We don’t always need gifts of tonnes of cereals, what we need is help to develop.”

With more and more mouths to feed and desertification biting further into the vast arid nation each year, Niger has few natural resources to launch economic development projects. Nearly 80 percent of its 12 million people live in rural areas and 84 percent of men and 97 percent of women are involved in subsistence agriculture of some form.

“So many people in Niger are so desperately poor that a small shock creates a humanitarian disaster,” said Toby Porter, the Save the Children’s Director of Emergencies, in a recent statement. “There is no war in Niger, no rebel groups, no despots, no problems getting the aid in. It’s just poverty.”

Perennial hunger...

Food shortages are a perennial problem in Niger, particularly in the lean season before the harvest, each June, July and August. Last year, a double-whammy of drought and West Africa’s largest locust plague for 15 years left Nigeriens hungrier than ever.

A malnourished child at a Médecins Sans Frontières feeding centre, 12 August 2005, Maradi, Niger. The centre is filled with hundreds of children, many of whom were in a bad condition than they arrived. The children here are fortunate as they are recover

Edward Parsons/IRIN
A malnourished child at a Médecins Sans Frontières feeding centre, 12 August 2005, Maradi, Niger. The centre is filled with hundreds of children, many of whom were in a bad condition than they arrived. The children here are fortunate as they are recover
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
European Union pledges more aid to fight malnutrition
A malnourished child at a Médecins Sans Frontières feeding centre, 12 August 2005, Maradi, Niger. The centre is filled with hundreds of children, many of whom were in a bad condition than they arrived. The children here are fortunate as they are recover
Every year children suffer from malnutrition in Niger

Media images of malnourished babies kick-started a multi-million dollar relief operation, and one year on aid workers are warning of new problems caused by families running into debt during last year’s shortages and unable to build up reserves. As of mid-April, the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF had helped over 50,000 child cases of malnutrition, of which 15 percent were severely malnourished - or so hungry their life was in danger.

Only this week, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) calculated that 33 percent of Niger was in a precarious food security situation and that pockets of communities are reporting that they are eating less each day.


At the same time, meningitis which is endemic in much of the arid Sahel region of West Africa, killed 154 people in the first 14 weeks of the year and affected 2,381, according to OCHA. Most affected by the outbreak has been Maradi, last year’s epicentre for the hunger crisis, with over 50 percent or 1,320 of the total cases.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), health facilities are extremely limited even in the capital Niamey and other urban centres, while the rural majority have “completely inadequate” health access. As a result, mosquito-borne malaria, a treatable disease, accounts for 50 percent of deaths in children aged under five.

And waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid regularly claim hundreds of lives in a country where only 41 percent of the population has access to improved drinking water, said WHO.

...and now, bird flu

And this year, Niger faces a new health and food security threat - bird flu.

The deadly H5N1 virus that can infect and kill humans appeared in February in Magaria, 200 km east of Maradi and close to the border with Nigeria, which reported Africa’s first case of the deadly virus earlier that month.

Aid workers are concerned that health campaigns will not be enough to drive the message home about culling sick birds to avoid handling. Furthermore, it took nearly a month for the cash-strapped government to launch culling. Funds since have been secured from the French development Agency (AFD), but only 60 percent of 25,000 birds identified for extermination have been destroyed to date, according to OCHA.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSnet), bird flu is a serious threat to Niger’s poultry industry, “which will inevitably undercut a basic source of income for poor households in general and women in particular,” said a report released on Wednesday.

Animal farmers may be able to take some succour, said FEWSnet, as the slump in poultry prices that typically accompanies confirmation of bird flu could drive up meat prices. But in Niger, few can see anything positive in the bird flu outbreak.

Nomadic herders could benefit from higher meat prices because of bird flu

“Last year it was hunger, this year we are hungry and have bird flu. Around Magaria bird flu has started to afflict poultry, one of people’s main sources of income,” said Harouna Aboubacar a resident of Niamey. “We are confronted by a deluge, but none of it is our fault.”

Some Nigeriens say that family planning must be addressed if things are ever to improve. Nigerien women have an average of eight children each, the highest birth rate in the world, according to the UN, but a mother can expect one in every three of those children to die before the age of five. At the same time, only 17 percent of adults can read and write, and illiteracy is even higher among women.

“In Niger we have too many children and our resources are not enough to keep everyone,” said Mani Issaka, a resident of Niamey who also works at the government’s health ministry. “We have a saying here, ‘The mouth that God made will not be without food to eat,’ but seeing how things are these days that no longer seems to be the case.”

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

Share this article
Join the discussion

Help make quality journalism about crises possible

The New Humanitarian is an independent, non-profit newsroom founded in 1995. We deliver quality, reliable journalism about crises and big issues impacting the world today. Our reporting on humanitarian aid has uncovered sex scandals, scams, data breaches, corruption, and much more.


Our readers trust us to hold power in the multi-billion-dollar aid sector accountable and to amplify the voices of those impacted by crises. We’re on the ground, reporting from the front lines, to bring you the inside story. 


We keep our journalism free – no paywalls – thanks to the support of donors and readers like you who believe we need more independent journalism in the world. Your contribution means we can continue delivering award-winning journalism about crises.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.