Niger Famine

The famine in Niger is finally getting the
attention it deserves. Hopefully, this will lead to aid that addresses the
human suffering. However, if humanitarian relief and media coverage stop with
famine relief neither will put this famine in context and that will leave the
people of Niger vulnerable to the next inevitable drought in this hot, arid
land.

The famine in Niger is finally getting the attention it deserves. After nearly two years, the world will help Niger to address the human suffering that is so widespread in this hot, arid land. However, if the media coverage is limited to famine relief, it will not create the understanding that is needed to ease the vulnerability of the people of Niger to the next drought, and drought in this region of the world is inevitable.

The full context of this humanitarian crisis is, of course, not merely drought. For more than two decades Niger has been supplying uranium for nuclear power plants, primarily in Europe. The French, who once held Niger as a colony, are the primary beneficiaries of Niger’s resources.

Read the old novels, “The Sheltering Sky,” and “Beau Geste,” for an accurate depiction of this region and European influence in it.

When the weather holds, the people of Niger can scrape by as they’ve done for centuries. They don’t enjoy a lavish lifestyle, but they can live at the razor edge of survival, if the rains come. I’ve seen gardens in Niger that supply people with enough food to scrape by, and these are the hairline balance between eating and starving. But when the rains don’t come, the balance tips and survival is difficult if not impossible.

In addition, there has long been serious question about the viability of the nomadic lifestyle of the Tuaregs. This lifestyle has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. It’s a pastoral lifestyle that depends on water and vegetation to support herds of cattle, goats and camels. But the nomadic life faces serious pressure by modern trade practices that leave nomad families without the trade markets they once enjoyed.

There are almost no camel caravans crossing the desert carrying goods for barter today. They were the lifeblood of trade in past centuries. Cattle markets still flourish, of course, but the encroachment of urbanized living influences even nomads who are hundreds of miles from regional towns and cities. Some, including many Nigerois, contend it’s a culture in decline.

While this may be true, it’s a fair question to ask how the profits from uranium mining have benefitted Niger’s people and where they have been applied to upgrade infrastructure, education, and industry. That Niger is once again at survival’s edge is in indictment of the extractive industries that benefit from local resources, but don’t return value to the economy.

We must, of course, provide humanitarian aid. To do less would be criminal and immoral. However, we must also step to the next level and ask why this crisis after so many years of extractive mining of such a precious resource?

I know that’s a whole different level of response than providing a check for famine relief. But if we don’t want to see these same famine-ravaged little faces looking at us again the next time the rains fail, we must ask these hard questions, and join with those who are advocating for just global trade that promises to change the underlying poverty that leaves people vulnerable and allows them to fall off the edge.

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