July 20, 2005

CORRECTED-UN fund could have prevented Niger crisis

(Corrects dollar figures in second and third paragraph of

By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Niger's severe food crisis could
have been prevented if the United Nations had a reserve fund to
jump-start humanitarian aid while appeals for money were
considered, a senior U.N. official said Tuesday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs, known as OCHA, has $50 million to quickly respond to
emergencies, but only for loans, which must be repaid.

Instead, it wants $500 million for grants to rapidly launch
emergency relief campaigns as soon as warning signs emerge, Jan
Egeland, the head of OCHA, told a group of reporters.

"We need a central emergency fund so that we can have some
predictability," Egeland said. "As of now we have none."

"We are having an acute humanitarian crisis in Niger in
which children are dying as we speak," he said.

Some 3.6 million people are in need of food, among them
800,000 malnourished children. About 150,000 may die unless
food arrives quickly in the impoverished West African nation of
13 million.

But much of this was foreseeable due to a massive locust
infestation and recurring drought across the belt of countries
lining the southern edge of the Sahara.

Niger was hit the hardest, but the international response
has been glacial.

Rains have started to fall, but without seeds and money for
livestock, tools and feed, the October harvest will fail.

An appeal by the Food and Agricultural Organization for $4
million brought in $650,000, all of it from Sweden.

U.N. agencies have appealed for $30 million in humanitarian
aid, and about $10 million of that has come in so far.

Had the world responded immediately, it would have cost $1
a day to prevent malnutrition among children. Now it costs some
$80 to save a malnourished child's life, Egeland said.

"We will get funding for Niger, images are coming out of
children dying," Egeland said. "But it is too late for those
who are so severely malnourished and dying."

The combined annual U.N. appeal for humanitarian aid,
typically about $3.5 billion a year, "is one-third of what
Europeans eat in ice cream a year, and it is one-tenth of what
Americans spend on their pets a year," he said.