Global perspective Human stories

'Spare change' is all that is needed to save hungry children in Niger, Mali – UN

'Spare change' is all that is needed to save hungry children in Niger, Mali – UN

While developed nations talk of billions of dollars of debt relief for Africa, little more than $7 million is all that is needed to tilt the balance from despair to hope for the most vulnerable victims, mostly children of the current food crisis in two of the world's poorest countries, Niger and Mali, a United Nations agency said today.

"The amount we are seeking to meet the immediate needs of some of the world's poorest people is spare change compared with the cost of many other operations, and yet we find ourselves banging the drum in their name," World Food Programme (WFP) Associate Director for Operations Jamie Wickens said in Dakar, Senegal. "Niger and Mali need help today, not tomorrow."

A lethal combination of locusts and drought has created pockets of severe need in the two countries. But to date, WFP has received only about a third of the $11 million required to fund its emergency operations, leaving a total of $7.2 million ($5.8 million for Mali and $1.4 million for Niger) needed immediately to ensure people make it through the next three months before they harvest again in October.

The most immediate and obvious victims of the current crisis are children, whose frail malnourished bodies have been arriving at feeding centres in disturbing numbers in the worst affected areas, WFP noted.

"At a time when the G8 countries are finally talking seriously about lifting sub-Saharan Africa out of debt and impoverishment, here is a perfect example of how the rich world can make a very practical difference," Mr. Wickens said of next month's summit of industrialized countries in Gleneagles, Scotland. "One of the first rungs on the ladder of development is lifting the poorest of the poor out of hunger."

A nutrition survey in Niger in January suggested as many as 350,000 children under the age of five could be suffering from malnutrition. More recent surveys by the non-governmental organization (NGO) Médecins sans Frontières corroborate these findings and point to a deteriorating situation, typical of a war zone. As many as 800,000 children under five are now thought to be going hungry.

The situation in Mali, which has received even less international attention, is equally stark. Some 1.1 million poor farmers are estimated to be short of food. Recent nutrition surveys undertaken by the NGOs Oxfam-UK and Action Contre la Faim in northern Mali found a significant increase in severe malnutrition among the pastoralist population, particularly young children.