the Disillusioned kid: African Famine Driven by Fundamentalism! Part 2.
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Saturday, August 13, 2005

African Famine Driven by Fundamentalism! Part 2.

I've written about the role of free market reforms in bringing about the humanitarian catastrophe (there's apparently some debate over whether it's actually a famine or not) in Niger previously (as have Pranjal and Lenin), but my key source was the Grauniad which sceptics might consider to be less than objective. That it now seems to have been picked up by the Washington Post (link via This Modern World) might go someway to strengthening its credibility. If nothing else, it re-emphasises the point.

The picture painted by the article is a bleak one:
With her family's stocks of millet long gone, Rachida Abdou tied her shrunken baby girl to her back and grabbed the emaciated hand of her 7-year-old son. Together, they set out in search of food, or for somebody who might help.

On the fifth day of their journey, they stumbled into Maradi, a trading center. There, Abdou recounted, they saw something that they hadn't encountered in a very long time: food. There were sacks of rice, bags of peanuts and baskets of millet in the bustling markets. There was enough food -- here in the epicenter of a major hunger crisis -- to feed her family and thousands like it, if only they had the cash.

"What can you do?" said Abdou, a tall woman of about 30 with dark, piercing eyes. She sounded frustrated, and a bit desperate. "The price of millet is very high."
The reason for this horrific situation?
In a country adopting free market policies, the suffering caused by a poor harvest has been dramatically compounded by a surge in food prices and, many people here suspect, profiteering by a burgeoning community of traders, who in recent years have been freed from government price controls and other mechanisms that once balanced market forces.

At the same time, Nigeriens said, the tradition of sharing in their society is giving way to sharper, more selfish attitudes as Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, reaches for a more materialistic, Westernized future. That is especially true here, along the southern border with Nigeria, where an aggressive entrepreneurial culture has created the economic powerhouse of West Africa.

"There are people who are making profit out of this whole situation," said Abdoulkader Mamane Idi, a local radio journalist. "The link of brotherhood and solidarity has been broken."
Clearly traders must take some blame for the situation, benefiting at the expense of their less fortunate fellow citizens, but what of the Nigerien government?
A government spokesman, Ben Omar Mohamed, said from Niamey that the government has provided 42,000 tons of free and subsidized food to ease hunger. In Maradi, however, there is little evidence of official food distribution.

Longer-term economic policies may be working against a solution, according to some observers. In 1993, the government scrapped price controls at the urging of the World Bank and stopped heavy-handed interventions in grain markets by an import-export agency.

Mohamed acknowledged that prices have risen sharply but said the government was attempting to address the problem. "Absolutely, traders are making money because the demand is very high," he said. "We let the market determine the price."
Read over that last line again and remember that it is being said in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe in which 3.6 million people may be facing starvation. Are these people to be sacrificed on the altar of the free market? Are we prepared to standby and let that happen? I hope not; as Zeynep Toufe notes, the situation in Niger raises some very important questions.

Update 15/8/05: Pranjal Tiwari pointed me in the direction of this article from Z-Net which says much the same thing, but provides more historical context.

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