Annan: "Africa cannot develop, prosper, or be truly free on an empty stomach"

29 August 2005
Annan visits pediatric wing of Zinder Hospital, Niger

After returning from a visit to drought-stricken, locust-devastated Niger, where the people are struggling to recover from widespead malnutrition, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for better early warning about potential emergencies, more focus on prevention, the strengthening of regional institutions and a “look in the mirror instead of pointing fingers.”

In an opinion piece carried in the Financial Times and Le Monde newspapers, Mr. Annan also called for help for some 20 million Africans who are at risk of similar severe hunger and food insecurity.

“One of the proposals I have put before next month's World Summit calls for a 10-fold increase in the UN's Emergency Fund, which would enable UN agencies to jump-start relief operations,” allowing governments, the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to take adequate preparatory measures and deploy personnel with greater speed, he said.

The summit of more than 170 heads of State and Government will meet from 14 to 16 September at UN Headquarters in New York to discuss UN reform and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets designed to halve or eliminate a host of socio-economic ills.

Niger is grappling with a devastating array of challenges, including hunger, prolonged drought, accelerating desertification, locust infestation and regional market failures, but the Government and civil society groups have mobilized to help those most in need, Mr. Annan said. “I saw profound suffering in Niger, but I also saw signs that the country can come through this crisis, with lessons for all of us.”

The UN started raising the alarm about Niger and appealing for resources last November.

Mr. Annan said that in the Sahel region, desertification and environmental degradation rob people of arable land and drinking water, thereby increasing their vulnerability to food shortages, and when a drought followed last year's massive swarm of locusts, the people were pushed beyond the brink.

“Niger's struggle has belatedly galvanized international action. But a similar scenario of severe hunger and widespread food insecurity could still engulf some 20 million people in other areas of the Sahel, southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Southern Africa. If the world acts now, this need not happen,” he said.

Some of the international community's early analyses failed to distinguish between a poor country striving to meet its people's needs and the drastic emergency that the situation in Niger became, thereby providing prescriptions that did not reflect the urgency of the circumstances, Mr. Annan said.

According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), one in three Africans is malnourished, he said. Every year, hundreds of thousands of African children die from preventable causes, most related to malnutrition and hunger. “Human activities, poverty and nature are part of this lethal picture,” he said.

Prevention is less expensive than cure, Mr. Annan said, recommending debt relief, increased aid and trade regimes more favourable to the poor, as well as increased use of irrigated agriculture to reduce dependence on irregular rains.

“More generally, we need to draw on scientific advances and experience in Asia and elsewhere in order to trigger a green revolution in Africa,” he said.

Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), addressing West Africa’s humanitarian and security challenges, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), offering a framework for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, deserve increased international support, Mr. Annan said.

Meanwhile, governments in the region, international financial institutions (IFIs), donors and aid groups shared responsibility for the crisis. “Each of us, in our own way, was too slow to understand what was happening, get people in place and come up with the necessary resources,” he said.

All must now act to end the scourge of African hunger, Mr. Annan added. “Africa cannot develop, prosper, or be truly free on an empty stomach.”


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