July 30, 2005

France says world was late to help starving Niger

By Matthew Green

KALFOU, Niger (Reuters) - France blamed a food crisis
gripping its former colony Niger on a late response by the
entire international community on Saturday, saying it was not
the only country responsible for aiding the world's poor.

It said it would triple food aid to 4.6 million euros ($5.6
million) this year for Niger, where starvation threatens the
lives of tens of thousands of children and has left millions of
adults hungry after drought and locusts destroyed crops.

Aid workers have blamed donor nations -- including France
-- for failing to heed appeals from U.N. agencies and the
government for food aid since November.

"I'm happy to see that France is the biggest donor, but
other countries must do the same," Foreign Minister Philippe
Douste-Blazy said after flying in to northern Niger for a brief
visit to a mud village where France had sent boxes of medicine.

"There shouldn't just be big declarations made at summits
and big concerts with nothing behind them," he said.

Live 8 concerts around the world four weeks ago aimed to
put pressure on leaders meeting at a summit of the Group of
Eight rich nations into helping Africa.

He said French President Jacques Chirac had been the only
head of state to bring up the subject of Niger at the G8 summit
in Scotland this month.

Douste-Blazy said donor governments had been slow to
respond to warnings of an impending crisis in Niger.

"When the international community hears appeals like these,
it doesn't react," Douste-Blazy told Reuters at the village of
Kalfou, about 500 km (300 miles) northeast of the capital
Niamey, where traditional praise-singers banged drums.

Donations have increased dramatically since media images of
emaciated infants gained worldwide prominence in the past few
weeks, but Niger government officials say they would have
preferred help before people started dying from hunger.

Defending France's role, Douste-Blazy said there had been a
generalised lack of response to the crisis in Niger.

"The international community is late," he said. "We're in a
race against time to do what must be done for these children."

After a welcome from several hundred villagers and dancing
girls singing "Long Live France" at the airport in the nearby
town of Tahoua, Douste-Blazy briefly met local leaders in
Kalfou to hand over aid bearing "Donated by France" stickers.

France, the colonial power until Niger became independent
in 1960, is the biggest donor nation supporting the country on
an annual basis, contributing to funding its food reserves.

Chirac announced the increase in food aid to Niger on
Saturday. He also said France would double its contributions to
the World Food Programme, of which one million euros would be
used to supply school canteens in the most affected regions.

"This catastrophic situation highlights Niger's dependence
on climatic conditions and water resources," Chirac wrote in a
letter to Niger's President Mamadou Tandja released on

(Additional reporting by Astrid Wendlandt in Paris)