Starvation: A Painful Death

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Saadi, a young mother from a rural village in Niger, began crying when a reporter asked about her two-year-old son, Mahaya, who died last month. “I knew he was hungry and I had to get him to a clinic. But we could not find the money for the taxi ride,� she said.

During a visit to a feeding center several hours away, the same BBC reporter met Maina, a ten-month-old whose ribs were protruding through her skin.  She stared at him quietly with large, “beseechingâ€? eyes.  “There was nothing left in the village to eat, so we came here and left the other children behind,â€? her mother said.

Indo also had to leave four children behind with her aging mother and walk for two days to carry 21-month-old Salima to a feeding clinic.  At the clinic, Salima only had enough energy to nurse for a few seconds at a time before her head would roll back over her shoulders.  “It’s been two years that we’ve not been able to grow anything,â€? Indo told a United Nations reporter. “It’s because there’s been no rain. We have no food anymore.  The only thing I can give her is some millet porridge, maybe one or two times a day. There’s no milk. It’s not enough.â€?

Mahaya, Maina, and Salima are three of the smallest victims of the latest global tragedy:  a food crisis in Niger.  Too often, Americans don’t hear about crises like this in other parts of the world until they’ve become true emergencies.  In a vicious cycle, too often these crises become emergencies because not enough people are paying attention early enough to stop them. For months, aid officials had been warning that the combination of a locust plague and drought that hit Niger last year would lead to severe food shortages this year unless the world community stepped in early to help. This crisis could have been averted. But help was too slow coming.  

“Niger is the example of a neglected emergency, where early warnings went unheeded,â€? UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland told the BBC. “The world wakes up when we see images on the TV and when we see children dying.  We have received more pledges in the past week than we have in six months. But it is too late for some of these children.â€?

In Niger, as in many crises, children are especially vulnerable. There are now an estimated 3.6 million people at risk in Niger—one-third of the country’s population— and 800,000 of them are children under age five.  For tens of thousands of these children, the risk is already painfully real: 160,000 are already moderately undernourished and 32,000 are severely undernourished. Thousands have already died, like Mahaya.

Niger is also not the only country right now with people at risk of severe hunger.  Its neighbors are also suffering:  reports estimate there are 1.1 million people in Mali in need of food aid, 500,000 in Burkina Faso, and 750,000 in Mauritania. Some neighboring countries, like Benin, are experiencing artificial food shortages because local farmers have chosen to take advantages of the high demand and high prices in Niger by exporting their crops to traders there. And in Southern Africa, the UN says Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia are all experiencing serious food shortages too, and things are only expected to get worse.

UN official Egeland notes it costs $80 to save a starving child’s life through a therapeutic feeding center, but only one dollar a day to prevent a child from reaching that stage.  Egeland also said the UN is still having trouble raising the $30 million it has requested for short- and long-term help for Niger, and to put that figure in perspective, pointed out Europeans spend $10 billion on ice cream every year and Americans spend $35 billion annually on our pets.  He also points out that $30 million is equal to 20 minutes of the world’s military spending.

What a tragic, shameful statement on where our priorities lie. But now that Americans and the rest of the world know help is needed, we have the opportunity and the moral obligation to give it. Solving the emergency in Niger is just a beginning.  For the first time in history, the world has the resources and the technology to end hunger for good.  We have an extraordinary opportunity in our reach.  All that’s left is finding the political will. The God of history is watching.

Every time the world sees images of starving children, we all vow ‘never again,’ and then within weeks or months forget our promise and move on to other news and other problems.  It’s time to keep that promise to Mayaha, Maina, Salima, and the hundreds of thousands of children just like them. [BlackStarNews Editor’s note: People wanting to donate towards famine relief can go to]

Marian Wright Edelman is CEO and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund. For more reports please click on “subscribe� on our home page or call (212) 481-7745 to order the newsstand edition of the Black Star News, the world’s favorite Pan-African news weekly.

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