Heading Off Hunger in Africa

When pictures of last year's tsunami devastation sped around the world, people and nations opened their hearts and their pocketbooks.

The same thing is now happening with a hunger crisis in the West African country of Niger, where 3.6 million people, including 800,000 children, face severe food shortages.

An important difference separates these two cases, though. There was no tsunami warning system in place to alert people so they could mitigate the effects of that disaster. But the United Nations has been warning about a building crisis in Niger since November. It wasn't until the media beamed pictures of Niger's suffering children, though, that the giving kicked in, enabling the UN to make its first food delivery to Niger last week.

Delay costs lives and dollars. In May, when the UN again put out a call on Niger, it said it needed $16 million. Now, the cost has tripled. Why? Because it's too late to truck in supplies; they must arrive by air. And, it's not just a matter of food anymore, but of medical attention.

Food crises are an African perennial. They can be man-made by war and bad policies. They can result from bad weather. Often, they're a combination of both. Niger is suffering mostly from drought and locusts, but those problems are compounded by market reforms and profiteering that dramatically raised food prices.

Whatever the causes though, the world must find a better way to respond to and head off these crises.

The Group of Eight industrialized nations recognized this when it met in July and agreed, among other things, to an African debt forgiveness and aid package. Its view was long-term, aimed at changes such as increasing agricultural productivity. But this takes years, and food needs are acute now.

One way to address the short term might well be a UN proposal to boost its emergency relief fund tenfold to $500 million. Jan Egeland, the UN's point man on emergencies, likens the present situation to a local fire department having to ask a mayor for funds every time it needs to douse a raging fire. But the larger fund would work only if the UN can show that it won't suffer the abuse that met the Iraq oil-for-food program.

In the meantime, the UN's World Food Program has identified other crises in the making (www.wfp.org). And last week, the US reported that more than 20 million people in 12 African nations face food shortages.

Donors don't need to wait for a larger UN fund. They can add smarts to their generosity and respond now, before things get worse.

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