Emergency appeal for £8m to avert famine in Niger

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A drought and a locust plague have left almost eight million people at risk in Niger, the second-poorest country in the world, and its neighbours Mali, Mauritania and Burkina.

The Disaster and Emergencies Committee is fronting the campaign. Brendan Gormley, the DEC chief executive, said: " Every second counts. We need the public to donate whatever they can today to help us save lives. DEC members are working to get supplies of food to those who need it most urgently in Niger and are also scaling up their efforts in the other countries of the Sahel region in west Africa, which are also badly affected."

Short films with actor Dougray Scott and presenter Jeremy Vine were shown on the BBC and ITV for the first time last night to spearhead the Niger Crisis Appeal, showing the severity of the situation. Posters advertising the campaign have been unveiled in charity shops and high street banks in a bid to draw attention to the cause.

About 2.5 million people are suffering from food shortages in Niger alone, with at least 800,000 children at risk of malnutrition. Before the present crisis, 40 per cent of children were malnourished through sheer long-term poverty and the north-west African country had the second-highest global mortality rate among children under five.

Millions are struggling to deal with the effects of a persistent lack of food, safe water and basic healthcare. In Mali, more than a million people will need food aid this year and in northern Burkina 500,000 people need help.

Margareta Wahlstrom, the UN's assistant secretary general for humanitarian affairs, admitted that for the crisis to have reached this stage, the system had failed.

She said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday: "In hindsight, I think we will all agree that we were too slow. What we have is a system that seems to be quite unable to focus on more than one or two big emergencies at the same time.

"And I think what is a bitter pill for all of us is that it's only when we are faced with images of starving children that the international system starts kicking along."

All funds from the appeal will go to relief programmes, including the purchase and distribution of food, animal fodder, seeds and medicines.

A call centre has been set up to take donations by credit card and Myleene Klass, the former pop singer turned classical musician, and Simon Amstell, the Popworld presenter, were among those manning the phones last night. Donations can be made at www.dec.org.uk or by calling 0870 60 60 900. Donations can be made at any high street post office or bank.

The Disaster and Emergencies Committee is an umbrella organisation uniting 13 of the UK's major aid agencies. ActionAid, the British Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the Children are among the charities involved in the appeal.

The Royal Mail has set up a PO Box address specifically for any donations to the appeal. Anyone wishing to send a cheque by post should write to: DEC Niger Crisis Appeal, PO Box 999, London, EC3A 3AA.