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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 August 2005, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
How many dying babies make a famine?
By David Loyn
BBC Developing world correspondent

Malnourished child at MSF feeding centre in Maradi, Niger
One in four Nigerois children dies before reaching the age of five
Famine is a troublesome word with a very specific meaning to the professional aid community.

It is usually taken to define a situation in which a high proportion of the general population are vulnerable to death by hunger-related disease.

This describes a much more intense situation than the loose way that famine is generally understood - and the pictures of starving babies in Niger certainly look like "famine" to the outside world.

In technical terms Niger's President Mamadou Tandja may be right to say that this is not a famine.

His government has a political problem in trying to stimulate the right kind of aid, without appearing to humiliate their country, and there have been different nuances from different ministers as the crisis has unfolded.

While the president now speaks of "foreign propaganda", and "deception" by aid agencies to try to raise funds, other ministers have criticised the international community for not responding quickly enough.

Whose fault?

When I met Foreign Minister Aichatou Mindaoudou in Tahoua a week ago, one of the worst affected areas, she said that she had been warning of the impending crisis since last year, and raised it again in meetings this year, but no-one responded.

Now no-one is taking the blame for the deaths in Niger - proof of the maxim that "failure is an orphan, while success has many fathers".

The big donors in the international community should take some blame.

Boy carrying grass for livestock in the village of Sadongori Kolita near Maradi, Niger.
This year's drought in Niger was foreseeable
The early warning signs in November were not heeded, and the UN's "flash appeal" in May raised just 12% of what was needed, both in Niger, and in neighbouring Mali, which is also affected and increasingly showing signs of real distress.

External influences were not to blame only in the world's failure to intervene, but in imposing economic prescriptions which diminished the capacity of the country to act.

The government of Niger, under orders from the International Monetary Fund, abandoned stockpiling of emergency stocks.

But when it ordered 30,000 tons of food to arrive in July (about two-thirds of what the UN's World Food Programme thought was then needed) the food did not arrive.

Contractors defaulted because of a general lack of supplies in the region.

Warning signs

The government of Niger should share some blame too.

There were two general rations of government food aid in Mali, but far less in Niger.

Part of the reason for this failure is a long-term lack of concern by the government in the capital Niamey, in the far south of the country, for the condition of the nomads in the north, the people who will suffer most in the long term in this crisis, since they have lost most of their animals.

The truth is that this is a complex emergency, not a sudden cataclysm, like a tsunami, earthquake or war.

The drought last year, followed by an invasion of locusts, has been followed by drought this year.

And all this happened in one of the poorest countries in the world, where people were already vulnerable.

Nigerois women performing rain dance in the village of Sadongori Kolita near Maradi, Niger.
Donors tend to respond to crises after extensive media coverage
In a "normal" year in Niger there are large numbers of deaths of children: one in four does not live to see his or her fifth birthday.

It was the Nobel Prize winning Economist Amartya Sen who famously said "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."

Images of people dying on a large scale after being forced to leave their homes in search of food are very rare, and occur usually only at a time of war, such as in Ethiopia in 1984, or Afghanistan in 2001.

Media power

The unusual thing about the continuing Niger crisis is that policy decisions have been led by media images, set off by the powerful BBC reports by Hilary Andersson early last month.

Avoiding the famine label has often been convenient for those seeking to justify slow or failed responses
Overseas Development Institute report

The images reflected what was clearly a worsening crisis, and since those first reports, the MSF therapeutic feeding centre in Maradi has received more media attention than anywhere on the globe.

It is this in particular which has led to disquiet in the government in Niger.

The nexus between dying people and the media is rather a crude one, mediated by aid organisations. We need dramatic images and the NGOs need funds - the dying support both needs.

But all of this information was available to the big donors, governments and private funds several months ago, when intervention would have been much cheaper than it is now.

They did not respond to the requests on paper as they did to pictures of dying babies.

Nigerois woman removing husk from grains of millet
Cereal output in Niger in 2004-05 is not dramatically low
It is not only the president of Niger who is trying to put this into some perspective.

An analysis on the respected US-funded crop forecasting website Fews says that the drought has not been as bad as generally perceived, and that the "plague of locusts" actually had a small effect on output.

Fews calculates that cereal output in Niger in 2004-05 was 11% down on the five-year average, and actually higher than in 2001-02, a year when there was no food crisis.

Its analysis concludes: "Although the willingness of much of the world to address these 'famine' conditions in Niger is appropriate and welcome, without a similar commitment and prolonged attention to addressing the chronic issues that are at the heart of the current localised crises, the same problems will re-occur again soon."

It may not be a famine, but it is an ongoing development crisis, with the need for sustained attention, even when the cameras move on somewhere else.

In another careful analysis, the Overseas Development Institute says:

"For those who are dying from acute malnutrition and related diseases, the debate about whether there have been enough deaths to justify the famine label, and the extent to which this exceeds the normal hungry season mortality rate is not helpful.

"Avoiding the famine label has often been convenient for those seeking to justify slow or failed responses."

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