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Brown returns to politics with a plea for famine-stricken Niger

Gordon Brown returns to front-line politics today, making an appeal for Britain to fund food aid to the landlocked African state of Niger where more than half the population face starvation.

In an article for The Independent, the former prime minister expresses frustration that the UK, US and other states have failed to contribute enough money to a United Nations appeal, leaving it $80m (£51m) short of target – and delivering little more than half the food needed.

While dramatic TV footage of the flooding in Pakistan has prompted governments to commit hundreds of millions to the aid effort there, the slowly worsening humanitarian crisis in Niger has been largely ignored by donors and the media. After a drought ruined much of last year's harvest, extending the annual "hunger season" from four to eight months, the rains have now come excessively, sweeping away homes, grain stores and livestock.

One in six children are malnourished. In coming months the UN World Food Programme estimates 7.9 million of Niger's 15.3 million population will require emergency food. Josette Sheeran, its executive director, said: "The drought in Niger is an unfolding catastrophe for millions of people and we are struggling against time to scale up quickly enough to reach the escalating number of hungry."

Since his departure from Downing Street on 11 May – when he admitted learning some "frailties" in government – Mr Brown has kept a low profile. He has devoted himself to his Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency in Fife and to writing a book on the near-collapse of global banking, to be called The Financial Crisis.

Asked before the general election what he wanted to do after his premiership, he indicated he would not take business directorships, but would focus on charity and international development. Earlier this month he was reported to be considering making speeches for $100,000 a time.

Although less well-known than neighbouring Nigeria, Niger is one of the world's largest countries with a landmass five times bigger than the UK. An arid land whose people eke out a living from subsistence farming, it is desperately poor. GDP per capita is the fifth lowest of 227 nations, ahead of Somalia, Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The floods are its worst for 80 years.

The BBC's Mike Thomson, who visited the south-east of the country for a report for the Today programme, found 9,000 people waiting for grain from aid agencies near the town of Maradi. Some of them had been surviving on leaves and near-toxic berries edible after being soaked in water for a week. He was told these were now running out.

Mr Brown, 59, supports the development of irrigation and water schemes to increase cultivable land. There are no easy answers," he writes.

"But, today, where there is suffering without hope, we can prevent children dying painful, avoidable deaths."