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Change needed for Niger to bounce back from current crises

Posted by Rheal Drisdelle, Plan Niger Country Director

Rheal Drisdelle24 August 2012: The Sahel is a tough place for tough people. I know that Sahelians - particularly Nigeriens - are very resilient. That’s a powerful characteristic that can perhaps only be fully appreciated by understanding how elastic works – it always snaps back into place. That’s Nigeriens!

But I fear that successive crises are stretching the poorest in this nation to the limit. We need all hands on deck - people, governments and donors everywhere - in order to avert a catastrophe which, in time, we may come to regret.

One does not survive thousands of years in the Sahel without developing skills and strategies to cope with such a harsh and unforgiving environment. But I wonder to myself if, after everything that has happened in the last few years and the last few months in particular, the people will survive if disasters keep on coming.

Resilience waning

Floods in Niamey, Niger

Recent flooding in Niamey, Niger, destroyed homes and displaced thousands of people

Disasters this year have rolled in like storm-surge - wave upon wave. It is not just food insecurity and floods, but the fact that the strategies that people used to cope over the years can no longer provide for them.

Young men who leave to find work in other countries and send money home can no longer find work. Tens of thousands have come back from Libya fleeing the Arab Spring. The money has dried up and they are now seen as a burden.

That’s the same story in neighbouring Nigeria, where the actions of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, have forced the government to close the border to many Nigeriens migrating to find work. Elsewhere in the region, Cote d’Ivoire is just coming out of a civil conflict and can no longer provide for Nigerien migrants.

Debt burden

Families are in debt after having borrowed money to purchase cereals from local vendors. Some have sold all the ‘family silver’ to settle the bills. The poorest Nigeriens are finding it tough returning to normal after wave after wave of poor harvests and other disasters.

Plan started life 75 years ago providing food, accommodation and education to children whose lives had been disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. It is one of the world’s oldest and largest children’s organisations. We’ve always been a development organisation with some of the best development specialists in the world.

Disaster strikes

Within recent years, the number of disasters striking everywhere seems to be exponentially increasing, such as extreme weather leading to food insecurity and severe malnutrition of millions of children; conflicts causing large-scale displacement of children and their families; separation of children from families and sexual violence against girls; cholera outbreaks killing hundreds of people and locust infestation destroying crops and incomes for families.

As a children’s rights organisation, we cannot sit idly by and say “well, we don’t work in that area nor do we respond to disasters”. As long as children are affected we need to respond.

Children are among the most vulnerable. They will suffer from malnutrition linked to lack of a balanced diet. Older children will be deprived of school because their parents can no longer afford school fees, school books and other school materials.

Simply giving a hand-out year after year does not work. We cannot simply keep giving them a fish. We have to teach them how to fish.

Investment need

Donors and the Niger government have to realise that long term, sustainable aid must be provided if the country is to pull through this series of crises without a repeat. We cannot continue year after year to spend millions of dollars on humanitarian aid.

Countries like Niger need longer term investment to secure food production. For example, the country needs investment to turn the mighty Niger River into an irrigation source, rather than having to rely solely on rainfall to grow food to feed its 16 million people.

Donors and non-governmental organisations must empower young men and women to provide for themselves (the majority of Niger’s population is below 15 years of age) through education and training. Long term commitments are needed from donors to support the development of the country.

At Plan Niger, we do not want to see another generation of Nigeriens holding out their bowls for food assistance. We want to see them helping themselves, but the proverbial fishing rod with which their parents once fished is worn out. We need to provide new, hi-tech, scientifically-advanced fishing rods and teach how to use them effectively.

If we do, perhaps Nigeriens can bounce back from a crisis that is now stretching them to breaking point.

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Aug 24, 2012 11:15 AM