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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 August 2005, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
UN chief promises aid for Niger
Kofi Annan in a Niger clinic
Kofi Annan went to see the problems first-hand
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has promised Niger all the aid it needs to cope with the food crisis.

He was speaking after meeting President Mamadou Tandja at the end of his two-day trip to Niger.

The talks follow criticism of the UN's response to the shortages, which are affecting more than 2.5m people, with 32,000 children facing death.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said this week the UN's response was inadequate.

Mr Tandja has also criticised the UN effort, saying the problems have been exaggerated.

"We discussed the food crisis in Niger and in the region, and measures that ought to be taken to ensure what has happened this year, does not happen in the future," Mr Annan said. "But quite a lot of it requires regional cooperation."

He was also meeting local officials from UN and other aid agencies.

'Hunger, hunger'

The UN has run an appeal but has been accused of not acting quickly enough and of not ensuring that the aid gets to those who need it most.

Less than half the $81m (45m) called for by the UN has been pledged by international donors, the organisation says.

We expect Kofi Annan to put some order in United Nations agencies that are major actors in this crisis, the World Food Programme and Unicef
Jean-Herve Bradol, MSF

The BBC's Dan Isaacs in West Africa says Mr Annan's trip is a clear indication that he is intent on addressing the issue of the UN response head-on.

A crowd of about 1,000 people greeted Mr Annan at the airport in one of the worst-hit areas, Zinder, some shouting "hunger, hunger" at the visiting dignitaries.

Mr Tandja has denied that Niger is in the grip of a famine, and has criticised the opposition and the UN for the way they have handled the crisis.

Harvest hopes

In a statement released on the eve of Mr Annan's visit, MSF said children under five, who were at most risk from malnutrition, were not always getting the aid they needed.

"Neither in quantity or quality, was it [the UN] responding to the gravity of this epidemic of desperate malnutrition," the statement said.

A woman waits outside a Save The Children centre with her son
Children have been worst hit by Niger's food crisis

"We expect Kofi Annan to put some order in United Nations agencies that are major actors in this crisis: the World Food Programme and Unicef," said the head of MSF France, Jean-Herve Bradol.

In Madara, on the outskirts of Zinder, Mr Annan did not respond to the MSF criticisms but praised MSF's work in Niger.

The food emergency follows last year's poor rains and invasions of locusts, which ravaged crops across West Africa.

Our correspondent says this is a critical moment for the international relief operation.

The next harvest in Niger is due in October and hundreds of thousands of people are in need of emergency assistance to bridge that gap.

Aid agencies say that this year's rains have been good, raising hopes that the 2005 harvest will be plentiful.

But in the longer term, Niger faces profound economic problems and its people live at the very margins of sustainable life.

With many of the livestock herds decimated by the food shortages, and large numbers of people displaced from their homes, the repercussions of further poor harvests could be even worse.

Scenes from Kofi Annan's visit to Niger

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