July 20, 2005

Slow response sends costs of Niger aid rocketing

By Matthew Green

DAKAR (Reuters) - The costs of saving millions of people
starving in Niger are rocketing because rich nations ignored
calls for early intervention to avert the ravages of last
year's drought, relief workers said on Wednesday.

Increasingly desperate appeals from aid agencies and the
government have encouraged donors to come forward with funds in
the past few weeks, but only after large numbers of children
began dying of diseases brought on by hunger.

"The funding needs are sky-rocketing because it's a matter
of saving lives," said Gian Carlo Cirri, the U.N. World Food
Programme's (WFP) representative in Niger's capital Niamey.

"The pity is we designed early enough a preventative
strategy, but we didn't have the chance to implement it."

In common with many other crises in Africa, U.N. officials
say the late response in Niger shows how the rich world often
misses chances to avoid worse disasters by reacting only when
situations reach critical, headline-grabbing proportions.

In Niger's case, failed rains and locusts left some 3.6
million people short of food last year, putting tens of
thousands of children at risk of starving to death.

There is no national mortality data for the West African
country, but aid workers say many infants have already died.

Jan Egeland, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said on Tuesday it would have
cost $1 a day to prevent malnutrition among children if the
world had responded immediately. Now it costs some $80 to save
a malnourished child's life, he said.

Niger's President Tandja Mamadou accompanied Moroccan King
Mohammed on a visit to the southern town of Maradi on
Wednesday. Morocco has set up a field hospital in the town to
treat the hungry, particularly sick women and children.


WFP, which is responsible for emergency food aid, initially
asked for $4.2 million to feed 465,000 people, aiming to help
the poorest households through the worst hunger period.

It said the tardy donor response, exacerbated by problems
buying food in the region, allowed the situation to worsen,
forcing WFP to announce last week it was tripling its operation
to feed 1.2 million people and ask for an extra $12 million.

Cirri said donors have so far funded 37 percent of the
total appeal for about $16 million from WFP, but other U.N.
agencies like the children's fund UNICEF have also had to
increase the size of their appeals to deal with the scale of
the disaster.

"We missed the first train because of late funding and huge
procurement problems. We have no other solution than to ask for
a huge amount of money just to save those lives, otherwise we
will have a tragedy," Cirri told Reuters by telephone.

OCHA appealed in New York on Tuesday for $500,000 in grants
to set up a fund to send relief as soon as warning signs

Niger's government, which is aiming to feed roughly 1.3
million people, says it has had a paltry response to a June
appeal for about 35 million euros to replenish its mechanism to
deal with the country's chronic food shortages.

The former colonial power France announced it was donating
2 million euros on Tuesday to add to an existing 3 million euro
pledge for Niger's food crisis this year.

Until France made its pledge the government said it had
received a total of about 240,000 euros from China and South
Korea for the June appeal, the vast majority donated by
Beijing. (Additional reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi in