Friday, August 12, 2005

Tanja fiddles while Niger burns

Remember the famine in Niger and its West African neighbors that I've written about?

Apparently it's a figment of our collective imagination. It's an invention of humanitarian aid agencies who want to raise huge wads of cash at the expense of Niger's good name.

At least that's according to the nitwit who passes for the man in charge of the Niger. President Tanja Mamadou not only denied that there was a famine in his country, but went so far as to say, "The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see."

Only a few weeks earlier, a Niger government official said to the BBC, "We have made an appeal since November and told the international community... We did not have any response."

In a radio interview, the official was very defensive. He said that hunger wasn't the government's fault, but that of the international community which has been slow to help.

This is a fair enough comment. But it raises some questions. Most notably:

-How can the government blast foreigners for not helping fast enough to prevent famine while simultaneously denying that there's the slightest risk of famine?

-How can the government blast foreigners for not doing enough to fight hunger when the government itself denies that hunger even exists? Is it any wonder outsiders are wary about pouring in money to fight a crisis which may or may not exist, depending on the government's political calculations of the day?

-If hunger is an invention of supposedly greedy non-governmental organizations, then how come thousands of people protested way back in June for the government to hand out free food?

President Tanja wondered why of the $45m (£25m) promised to Niger to help it deal with the food crisis, only $2.5m had been received by his government.

(Ethan, over at My Heart's in Accra blog offers this: according to Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index, Niger is ranked 122nd of 145 nations surveyed in terms of transparency

Ethan also has a fascinating analysis about what Google advertising rates say about words and what sort of public consciousness they provoke. The essay's hard to summarize but intriguing nonetheless so check it out for yourself)

President Tanja added, "We are experiencing like all the countries in the Sahel a food crisis due to the poor harvest and the locust attacks of 2004."

So it's not a famine but a food crisis. That's the source of his outrage?

Is this really the time for the president to be bothering himself with semantics?

Update: in a clarification (sort of), President Tanja said a famine had a devastating effect on the nation, with huge numbers of people fleeing affected areas, setting up emergency camps and people dying every day but that he accepted there were shortages of food but this was not a famine.

Are you as confused as I? Given what almost appears to be willful muddling on the part of the government, is it any wonder outsiders have been slow to pour money into Niger's coffers? Would you have confidence that this government would spend the money wisely, given that can't even seem to decide if there's even a problem or not, given that they're more worried about semantics than the 'devastating effect' of hunger?

Further update: My friend in London reports: My friend Larry called his friends IN Agades [one of Niger's main cities] and they say things are grim...


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