Year After Year, Grave After Grave

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 11, 2005

Gouré, Niger

Welcome to the most wretched country in the world.

Niger is dead last of the 177 nations ranked in the latest U.N. Human Development Report, based on its heartbreaking rates of poverty, illiteracy and mortality. On a 650-mile drive across the country from the Niger capital, Niamey, to this eastern city of Gouré, I stopped in village after village where peasants told of young children dying of starvation in the last few months. One man named Haroun Mani had just buried three of his eight children.

"They didn't have enough to eat, and then they got diarrhea and weakened and died," he explained. None had seen a doctor; in Niger, there is one doctor for every 33,000 people.

Granted, it's difficult for Western readers who are dieting to comprehend people who are starving. But Niger seems a good place to ponder the failings of a system of international aid that is often irrational and catastrophically inept, leading to the deaths of those children, Suraj, 5, Barida, 3, and Hawau, 2 - along with millions more across the continent.

A crucial mistake is our refusal to provide substantial agricultural assistance to increase African food production. Instead, we ship tons of food in emergency aid after people have already started dying. It's like a policy of scrimping on manhole covers because we're too busy rescuing people who fall into manholes.

In Niger, it has been apparent since the beginning of this year that a food crisis was coming, but the world ignored a U.N. emergency appeal for $3 million in aid in February. Then in July, BBC television showed wrenching images of children dying. Niger promptly received more aid in the last 10 days of July than it had received in the previous eight months.

In fact, the situation is more complex than the television images suggest. The reality is that people in Niger are always starving.

"There was a crisis last year, and there'll be a crisis next year," said Claude Dunn, who runs the World Food Program office in Maradi. This year's crisis was especially bad, but year in, year out, 160,000 children under the age of 5 die in Niger - one child in four never reaches 5. In other words, every single week this small country faces a 9/11-sized toll, composed entirely of dead children. And yet no one is declaring: We are all Nigeriens.

One problem is that U.S. law generally requires our food aid to be purchased in American markets and transported on American ships. The upshot is that much of the donation is wasted on shipping costs, the aid is delayed, and when it arrives our grain risks depressing local prices and long-term production incentives. To his credit, President Bush has pushed to ease this requirement, but members of Congress are blocking him, because they value farmers' votes more than African lives.

Above all, we need a major new international initiative to extend the green revolution to Africa. Farmers in tropical Africa get only 1,500 pounds of cereal grain per acre, compared with 4,900 pounds in China. Pedro Sanchez, an agricultural expert at Columbia University, has estimated that Africans could triple food production if they used modern seeds and methods.

In the village of Angaual Goge Haouna, where seven children died in the last few months of starvation, villagers said they wanted more fertilizer above all, as well as better seeds and help exploiting a nearby lake for irrigation.

"I'm not only using the same techniques as my grandfather, I'm actually using the same implements," said Momom Bukhary, a 63-year-old man. "And this land used to be far more productive than it is now. When I was young, the annual harvest would last a full year, longer in good times. Now it only lasts three months, and then we run out of food."

A major reason is that the soil has been depleted of nutrients. But in sub-Saharan Africa, farmers apply an average of 9 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare, compared with 206 kilos in industrialized countries.

In the news business, we don't lead with headlines like "Millions of Children Dying in Africa," because that's not actually news. It's the wallpaper.

Yet realities like that should inspire our priorities. And we're not even using our aid money wisely. Unless we help start a green revolution in Africa, we'll be back in Niger year after year - and every village will be surrounded by more tiny graves.