By Henri Astier
BBC News website
Niger's president accused aid agencies of exaggerating his country's
food crisis for their own gain, Western media reacted with shock.
Dramatic pictures publicised Niger's plight in
How dare he bite the hand that feeds his people, commentators
asked. Many suggested the president was making excuses for the
failings of his own government.
But according to some leading aid experts, Mamadou Tandja had a
His remarks may have been self-serving, they concede, but they
also raised serious issues about the way aid emergencies are
"I think NGOs and rich country media do have an incentive to
paint too simplistic and bleak a picture, as was the case in Niger's
food crisis," Professor William Easterly of New York University told
the BBC News website.
localised food shortages this year - but they were not particularly
acute, and are now easing.
What Niger is experiencing is not a sudden catastrophe, but
chronic malnutrition that makes people vulnerable to rises in food
Glib talk of famine backed by pictures of starving children may
help NGOs raise funds, but it does nothing to address these basic
problems, says Mr Easterly.
Boom and bust
Tony Vaux, a former official with Oxfam, agrees.
Once an emergency is identified, he says, the NGOs' public
relations machine takes over and "there is a terrible temptation to
look around for the very worst stories".
about this is you either have an aid bonanza or you have nothing.
There does not seem to be a middle ground," says Mr Vaux, author of
the book The Selfish Altruist.
President Tandja caused an outcry when he
One problem with dramatic appeals, Mr Easterly notes, is that
they do not give you a big bang for your aid buck.
"The payoff is disappointingly low," he says. Getting the relief
effort up and running takes time, and when the food arrives it is
often too late - or the crisis has eased on its own, as appears to
be the case in Niger.
Emergency aid may relieve the situation - but the same amount
spent before children starved in front of the cameras would have
saved many more lives.
Such poor returns were illustrated by the 2002 southern Africa
rains failed the UN warned that millions were at risk. Camera crews
looked for starving babies and found some. The aid bandwagon charged
But Zambia, worried that the US maize it was receiving might be
genetically modified, banned all aid - unwittingly providing an
Donors were aghast. But then something strange happened: nothing.
"Cutting off supplies had no impact," former Zambian agriculture
minister Guy Scott says.
There was no famine - only local shortages Zambia could deal
"NGOs flatter themselves into thinking that they save lives,"
says Mr Scott, who finds it "arrogant of the West to think that
without whites, without pop stars, Africans would all be dead".
The West tends not only to overstate the effectiveness of aid,
but also to underestimate its harmful effects.
often undermine self-reliance.
Too much of a good
"It is axiomatic that flooding the market with food drives down
the price for local farmers," Mr Easterly says.
James Shikwati, who heads the Inter Region Economic Network, a
Kenyan NGO, says drought aid to his country in the 1990s "killed
production" in many areas and increased dependency.
Aid can also encourage misguided policies. Mr Shikwati says this
has been the case in Ethiopia, where farmers are not allowed to own
Instead of introducing reforms, he notes, the government appeals
When donors respond, Mr Shikwati says, "they are subsidising a
government policy that makes it difficult for people to be
Likewise, it can be argued that aid sent to Niger has helped
obscure the role played by its neighbours in the crisis.
Nigeria and others - violating regional treaties - have banned
grain exports to Niger, which in normal times would have alleviated
What is to be done?
Mr Easterly and others are not arguing that the solution to
perverse incentives lies in withholding emergency aid.
They contend that it could be made to work better in a number of
- Providing compensation to local farmers
- Making sure aid stops when things improve
- Giving cash rather than food
But the most effective move would be to focus less on emergencies
and more on chronic problems. Mr Easterly says this could be done
cheaply in the Sahel.
Improving access to clean water and distributing re-hydration
tablets, for instance, would help eradicate diarrhoea, which drains
nutrients away and makes children particularly vulnerable.
Tony Vaux, for his part, calls on the media to present a balanced
picture of the situation of the ground, and not see their role as
promoting the NGOs public appeals.
But he does not hold out much hope.
"When I first joined Oxfam in 1972 there was a famine in the
Sahel, exactly like the famine today," he recalls.
Three decades and umpteen appeals later the same emergencies keep
recurring, he says ruefully.
Use the form below to send your comments on this story.
Spot on! I live in Niger and could not agree more. While the
interventions of MSF are laudable, there is no famine here. However,
had the BBC and others not reported on the famine, the chronic
gut-wrenching poverty would have gone unnoticed by the world. The
challenge to the NGOs and donors should not be that they rush to
Niger to help during a crisis, but that they remain here for the
long haul to help the wonderful people of Niger reach their
potential. Will the cameras be back in 6 months to see if anyone is
JD, Niamey, Niger
The laypeople of the West will never have a clear picture of what
actually occurs in countries on the African continent.
Unfortunately, the filter of the media does little to communicate
their day to day lives. It seems that when African countries grace
the news, they are usually on the threshold of imminent disaster.
The need for higher ratings drives the media to seek out the more
dramatic stories, or the appearance of one. I do not mean to say
that famine, and death are sensationalized by the media, however,
how many young children are dying in the United States today from
hunger and disease? The West has certainly been generous in the face
of Africa's many perceived problems. I think a time has been reached
when we must allow Africa to use her own natural genius to counter
her own natural problems. To assume that she can survive on her own,
is to assume a new posture of paternalism.
I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Welfare dependency
creates ever more dependency instead of looking at changing policies
that would promote self sustaining practices. This is why Africa has
gotten poorer while other regions of the world have improved their
standards of living.
Janet, Edmonton, Canada
A global body (perhaps the UN - what other purpose do they have)
should monitor global development and set objectives for improvement
of conditions. Countries should have the ability to foresee and plan
for shortages so that emergencies do not happen. Aid agencies should
encourage regular donations rather than emergency campaigns and
explain the advantages. Aid agencies also need to work with local
government and agencies and each other and listen to all before
acting. This world has enough technology of prediction that an
emergency never really needs to happen except in case of
extraordinary natural events such as the Asian
Trevor Rubinoff, Calgary, Canada
It would be a wonderful solution for NGOs and donor governments
to give more cash to people caught in disaster situations - if that
cash is edible. The fact is that the proposal to provide greater
cash resources will only help if food shortages occur only at a
regional level and if well functioning markets can respond to
demand. Unfortunately the reality of the situation is that in many
situations simply giving more cash, or subsidizing grain sales - as
the Nigerian government did earlier this year - will not always
solve the problem of food shortages. Sure, we can quibble over how
aid is given, and whether it arrives in a timely fashion and gets to
the people who need it. These are all important issues. These
arguments should not, however, get in the way of providing food to
people when they need it.
I think it's to balance out the pros and cons of giving aid and
saying that it definitely causes more harm than good, or visa versa.
Yet I think it's obvious that the NGO is not solving the problem by
shipping in bread. The blame though, seems to fall more on the
shoulders of the governments in Africa that would rather have that
support than encouraging reforms that could solve the long-term
problems. It is essentially a perpetual welfare system for countries
that don't want to get off it and take care of their own. Blaming
the West is missing the real point.
Mike Crill, Phoenix,
I must unfortunately agree with the article. I am studying
development policy in university and it is very interesting to look
at the amount of money that continues to go to emergencies, when
significantly less money goes to the ongoing emergencies. The worst
thing about the situation is the exorbitant amount of conditions
that are placed on EU and British aid. It is sad that developed
countries will only help if it doesn't compromise their economy,
their trade, their place in the world. It seems in the last decade
that aid is conditional on the recipient country remaining
underdeveloped and poor. 'We will feed you but we refuse to help you
feed yourself because that is bad for business' - a mindset that is
all too common in almost every development policy in the developed
world. It is a shame that wealthy countries are using food and
promises to remain wealthy.
Pam Provis, Ottawa,
I am currently researching my PhD in Rwanda. During the 1994
genocide, and after, NGOs and the international community relieved
their consciences, and their aging food stocks, by dumping dried
maize husks on the refugees. The people did not have the machines to
grind it into flour or the water to boil it. The children were so
hungry that they ate it and suffered internal bleeding - some died.
I totally agree with criticisms of the food aid culture in Africa
made in this article and believe that unless we ask what is needed,
before a crisis, we will continue to give what we want and escalate
John Giblin, Isle of Wight, UK (currently in
Providing relief aid should only be temporary and where the
situation warrants otherwise it will kill the economy. For example,
Ssembabule, my home district, is a leading producer of maize in
Uganda. If any part of the country is hit with food shortage, then
that should be a lucrative market for food producers. But the
foreign relief agencies always import free food and kill the local
market. As my president Museveni said when he met the late Ronald
Reagan in 1987, Africa will not develop because of aid but because
Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi, Kampala,
Perhaps the best and most honest analysis about aid in Africa. If
famine in Niger was that bad, refugees would have trooped into
Nigeria. The West and the media, urged on by Aid agencies, continue
to have a misguided belief that without them Africans will die off.
Well, that's far from the truth.
While it is true that people are malnourished and have a poor
standard of living, widespread and calamitous humanitarian crises
are not ubiquitous. If only the West can desist from distorting the
reality on ground and allow the societies to develop their own
coping strategies, I think we will have a better
Emeka Obiodu, London, UK
Tony Vaux is correct in his assessment that not much has changed
in three decades. In the West we are bombarded by appeals for one
disaster after another. Famine in Africa is a running sore that will
never be cured by handouts, a new approach is needed. African
governments have to take a more responsible role in the welfare of
their own people - until that happens nothing will
Steve Fleming, Toronto, Canada
I fully agree that aid is wrong in the medium and short run. Aid
had been more harmful than helpful to the African countries, which
have become more and more dependent on it. Moreover only a fraction
of the aid went to the targeted population. The problem with the
African countries is not lack of aid or natural resources but lack
of proper economic policies, especially exchange rate policies.
J M Wong Sin Wai, Toronto, Canada
This article is highly unfair to state that white people are
arrogant to think that without food aid Africans would die. There
may not be a famine but children are clearly dying from hunger.
African neighbours could be doing more as stated in the article that
Nigeria and others have banned grain exports to Niger that would
have help alleviate the crisis.
Was the West also not criticised for not helping earlier. I agree
that the long term problems need to be addressed but if the
governments are going to let their people starve don't have a go at
those who can't bear to see babies and children suffer due to such
Mc, London, UK
This is certainly a thought provoking article. Much of it makes
sense. Africa's biggest problem has been bad government (e.g.
corruption, wars etc) - there is no need for famine to occur there
it is a rich and lush continent. Aid props up bad government. While
emergency aid is needed in the case of massive catastrophes - we in
the West need to stop and think before we rush into
Shyam Vyas, Morristown, NJ (ex UK)
These leaders, be it of Niger, Ethiopia or CAR need to face the
reality, they should look deep into the countryside where millions
are starving and do whatever they can to circumvent the problem. If
it is the case that NGOs do more harm than good then the government
should be critical of only the harm it claims have happened and
should not forget that each starved child, mother and elderly need
bread on the spot just for survival. Indeed, for the one who is
starved a single bread is more than anything. If the government had
done that then the NGO would have no reason to be there.
Kiros Awalom, Germany