Scenes in Niger are 'an obscenity', Andrews


Chairman of the Irish Red Cross David Andrews has described as "an obscenity" the scenes of hunger he has witnessed in Niger.

Mr Andrews, who spent the weekend touring badly-affected areas of the famine-threatened west African state, called for the setting up of a global fund to tackle food crises.

"The situation is very serious here, and it will continue to be serious until the rains come and a harvest can be predicted. But it can't be let happen again," he told The Irish Times yesterday.

Speaking by phone from a feeding station at Bambeye in Tahoua province, he said food aid was now getting through to many victims of the crisis. "They're getting the food out as fast as they possibly can."

The former Fianna Fáil Minister said "nature, not conflict" was the root of the problem. Niger's harvests have failed in recent years because of drought, and locusts have eaten much of what remains.

He said the international community needed to establish a preventative fund which would make money and equipment available immediately once a crisis occurred. Overseen by the UN, it should be funded from grants by donor countries rather than loans.

"We have to admit the response to this crisis was slow. I believe both the donor countries and the aid agencies would put their hands up in this respect."

The Asian tsunami may have distracted the world's attention from the problems of African states such as Niger, he suggested.

"The media must take credit for bringing to our attention what could have been, and may yet become, a serious disaster."

However, Mr Andrews stressed that Ireland had been one of the first countries to respond to UN appeals, and the Irish public had once again proved generous in their donations to aid agencies. Goal and Concern are providing aid in Niger, while Trócaire is active through a local partner.

At Bambeye, the local chief expressed his gratitude at the rations distributed by the Red Cross by presenting Mr Andrews with a score of eggs.

Up to one-third of Niger's population, or 3.6 million people, are affected by severe food shortages. Of these, 800,000 children need to be fed urgently.

Mr Andrews has been asked by Minister of State for Overseas Development Conor Lenihan to report back on the situation in Niger, the world's second-poorest country. The Government has allocated €1 million to support the international response to the crisis, of which €500,000 has gone to Concern.

France, the former colonial power, announced a three-fold increase in its food aid to Niger to €4.6m, and called on other states to match it.

Inspecting the aid effort on Saturday, French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said: "I'm happy to see that France is the biggest donor, but other countries must do the same."

However, Goal's chief executive John O'Shea claimed his agency had already done more in a week than the UN had in months.

At the weekend, Goal said it distributed over 100 tonnes of grain and pulses to 10,000 people, enough food to last for one month, at Abala, 250 miles north of the capital Niamey.

"Goal has been in Niger for exactly one week, and we've managed to feed 10,000 people while the United Nations - the body charged with the responsibility of providing for the helpless in Niger - has once again failed to deliver. It is a shocking indictment of the international community's sheer inability to cope with natural disasters," he said from Niger.