Heart-wrenching stories of hunger are starting to flow out of the West African nation of Niger - stories of people like the proud, round-faced mother of an infant named Raba, who walked a day's journey to bring her emaciated son to a feeding center. Already this mother - who was reluctant to give her name because of the shame of it all - has buried five of her 11 children after they succumbed to the hunger that increasingly grips her land.
Yet amid the growing focus on Niger's woes, the broader fact is that the country's 2.9 million hungry people are just a fraction of Africa's 31.1 million food-deprived masses, scattered across Sudan's Darfur region, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Uganda, and elsewhere. Despite progress in boosting democracy, ending wars, and economic growth, Africa is the only region in the world becoming less and less able to feed itself.
Reasons include the relentless spread of desert and drought, high population growth, bad governance, and the world community's flawed hunger-response system.
In all, "Things are moving in the wrong direction," says Marc Cohen of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. "If we look at sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, all the projections are that poverty and hunger are going to get worse."
In 1970, sub-Saharan Africa had 18 million malnourished children. By 1997 there were 32 million, according to IFPRI. The global trend, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction: 203 million hungry children in 1970 down to 166 million in 1997, according to a recent IFPRI report.
The focus on Niger appears to be growing, in part because a British Broadcasting Corp. team recently emerged from the remote, landlocked nation with terrible images of starving children that were broadcast around the world.
Aid is now flowing in. Last Thursday and Friday, 306 tons of beans and oil were delivered to Tahoua, some 250 miles northwest of Maradi, the eastern town that has become a hub for aid agencies. On Friday, 28 tons of high-energy biscuits were airlifted from Italy to Niamey, Niger's capital. On Saturday, a French aid organization sent 20 tons of enriched milk and a highly nutritional peanut paste. The UN now says it will double the number of people it plans to feed, to 2.5 million.
Still, the long-term causes of the hunger remain. such as the relentless spread of desert and drought. "As the Sahara comes, the farms get smaller," says Abdou Bellas Marafa, chief of Canton Kyibir, a town in southern Niger. "The problem is not just in Niger, but in Mali, Nigeria, and others," explains Chief Marafa, sitting in his dust-covered red robe. The Sahara reportedly spreads at a rate of up to 30 miles a year.
Across Africa, desertification and drought are causing problems in places like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Adding to the resource drain is the continent's increasing numbers of people. Population growth doesn't get as much attention as it used to. HIV/AIDS has taken up much of the spotlight and has contributed to a slowing in the overall population-growth rate. But consider that the proportion of malnourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has stayed roughly steady since 1970 - at 33 to 35 percent of the population. Yet the total number of malnourished people has grown with the population, from 88 million in 1970 to an estimated 200 million in 2001, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Food production in Africa just can't keep up with the continent's growing masses. In Niger, for instance, the 11 million-strong population is expanding at 3.3 percent per year. That's the 10th-highest growth rate in the world, according to the UN, and it means the country's population will double in just 21 years.
Other impediments to feeding Africa's masses include the lack of good roads. Mr. Cohen points out that at the time of independence in 1947, India had a more dense road network than Africa has today. Without good roads and other infrastructure, bumper crops in one region can't be transported to needy areas.
Unlike in previous eras, famines are rarely a surprise. But one stumbling block may be the international community's famine-response system. Currently, when a crisis is identified, donors are asked for pledges to fund the response, then the food is bought or shipped in. The process can take six months or more.
"The system really needs some rethink," says Cohen. He suggests stockpiling foodstuff in affected regions to enable quick response. And he points to a proposed World Food Program pilot project in Ethiopia that would automatically begin distributing food aid if rainfall is below a certain level.
Meanwhile, back in Niger, Raba's mom is worried next season's crops will be hurt by the current crisis. She planted her millet this season, but then she had to tend to her son, not the crops. "I'm worried about the field," she says. "No one is looking after it." But at least Raba is being fed. He's at a center run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders. He's expected to survive.
• Wire services were used in this report.
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UN World Food Program