Hunger has been haunting the African nation of Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, as well as several of its neighbors, according to Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.
According to information from CRS and the United Nations, millions of people in seven sub-Saharan African countries of the Sahel region, including Niger, have been facing food shortages over the past several months. Drought and a plague of locusts that attacked Niger last year were ominous signs of the hunger to come, observed Jefferson Price, communications consultant to CRS.
“People pointed to the trees and said that in a matter of minutes these locusts can destroy every leaf on a tree,” Price told the Catholic Courier about a week after returning from an Aug. 1-12 trip to Niger. A former foreign correspondent and editor for The Baltimore Sun, Price travels the world on behalf of CRS, which is based in Baltimore. As he visited the southeastern Niger countryside, he took note of its barrenness, contrasting it to the bountiful cornfields he’s seen in America.
“We’re used to seeing cornfields with stalks 6 or 8 feet high this time of year in this country,” Price said. “In Niger and this (southeastern) area in particular, stalks were maybe 2 feet tall and very far apart. It wasn’t like you had rows and rows of corn. You just had a stalk of millet or sorghum just trying to get through the earth.”
Price said he was moved by the human face of the Niger tragedy. Recalling CRS workers’ distribution of emergency food aid Aug. 11 to villagers in Kawa Fako, Dogondoutchi province, Price said “there were people there who just had nothing.” He said some told him they had been living for months on tea brewed from leaves and weeds.
“There were signs, especially among the children, of malnutrition — the reddish tint to their hair, distended stomachs, this kind of vacant look in their eyes, just general listlessness,” he said.
CRS — which was aided by several other agencies and groups — provided rations meant to last each family about 40 days, Price wrote in an article for CRS. In addition, CRS has developed a $4.8 million emergency-response program for short- and long-term aid interventions, Price wrote. The plan envisioned an eight-month program incorporating a two-month emergency food-aid response plus therapeutic feeding for severely malnourished children and a six-month rehabilitation and recovery plan from October through March in regions aided by CRS.
Since Price’s visit, a significant portion of those in immediate need of food in the Sahel region have received some sort of assistance, according to Hilary Roxe, CRS’ communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa.
“We’re now shifting out of the emergency-response phase,” Roxe told the Courier. She added that short-term and long-term relief efforts have targeted more than 300,000 people in Niger. Before the food crisis drew significant attention, CRS had reached 24,000 people in Niger facing food shortages directly, and 144,000 people indirectly, through various programs, she said.
“Some of the people who participated in our programs fared better when the food shortage hit,” she said.
According to Price’s article, which appears on CRS’ Web site at www.crs.org, CRS has been working in Niger since 1991. During the last five years, he noted, the agency has been part of a consortium administering the U.S. government’s $27.5 million USAID development program with partners Africare, CARE and Helen Keller International. Funds to continue those programs have been severely reduced, Price wrote.
In the telephone interview with the Courier, Price added that he considered the funding reductions a shortsighted action.
“In this case, we’ve taken away the ounce of prevention and are paying through the nose for a cure,” Price said.
Indeed, Price and others seeking to end hunger said there’s no substitute for long-term thinking. Sarah Conley, who attends St. Mary’s of the Lake Church in Watkins Glen, is a grant writer for Serving In Mission, an evangelical organization that works in 40 countries in South America, Africa and Asia. Like CRS, SIM is also working to alleviate the hunger in Niger and details its work at its Web site, www.sim.org. Conley noted that Niger is no stranger to hunger, recalling that she worked there with a mobile medical team for Church World Service in 1972 when a severe multiyear drought had decimated the nomadic people known as the Tuareq.
“I agree with many of the aid agencies that we need to work on a strategy for food-supply sustainability instead of repeatedly responding when there is dire need and tremendous human suffering,” Conley said.
On that note, CRS’ Web site states that the agency has been working for a number of years to increase food security in Niger, supporting, for example, one program that helps scores of villages to improve their inhabitants’ agricultural skills.
In his Courier interview, Price acknowledged that people may be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless series of disasters hitting the world recently, including the tsunamis that devastated the Indian Ocean region late last year. Nonetheless, he said, the people of Niger are God’s children, and he urged Catholics to consider helping them.
“I think we who live in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world have a responsibility to help people who are suffering in the most endangered and vulnerable parts of the world,” Price said.
That notion echoed a statement released Aug. 3 by Bishop John H. Ricard, SSJ, of Pensacola-Tallahasee, Fla. Chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy, Bishop Ricard urged the international community to respond to the crisis stalking Niger and its neighbors.
“The teaching of our Church is unambiguous,” the bishop wrote. “In feeding the hungry we serve our Lord (Matthew 25:31-40).”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article contains reporting by Catholic News Service.
To donate to Catholic Relief Services, visit www.crs.org, or write Catholic Relief Services, PO Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090.