IMF and EU are blamed for starvation in Niger

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The Independent Online

Some aid specialists blamed the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. Their economic programmes have contributed to sharp rises in the prices of staples such as sorghum and millet. Others said the Niamey government had downplayed the emergency to protect local food traders who are resistant to free aid because it undermines markets.

"Rock concerts are all very well," said one of the more outspoken aid experts, the former French socialist health minister, Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who visited the disaster area last week. "But while the bands were playing people were dying in Niger because there is never enough planning."

The French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, clearly deeply moved after a three-day trip from which he returned yesterday, denounced the "sick avarice of rich countries, the lack of prevention and vision from the international community".

Niger, a large former French colony in the Sahara which is the world's third-largest uranium producer, has, for climatic and demographic reasons, one of the most fragile economies in the world. A Muslim country situated north of Nigeria, it has a population of about 11 million people, many nomadic herders, and one of the highest birth rates in the world.

Johanne Sekkenes, the mission head of MSF which is mounting the biggest emergency exercise in its history in Niger, says the current emergency could have been avoided. "This is not a famine, in the Somalian way," she said. "The harvest was bad in 2004 and the millet granaries are empty. Yet there is food on the markets. The trouble is that the price of the food is beyond anyone's reach.

"Given this situation, it was criminal of the UN this year to tackle the emergency in a gingerly way, putting 'moderately priced' cereals on the market. The UN should have immediately organised free food distribution."

Ms Sekkenes said the International Monetary Fund and the European Union had pressed Niger too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. "No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 per cent VAT on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished."

International agencies say the price of basic foodstuffs has risen between 75 and 89 per cent over the past five years. At the same time, the sale price of livestock - the main income source of the country's nomadic herders - has fallen by about 25 per cent. Although the food emergency in Niger has been pending since last autumn when rains ended early and the towns of Agadez, Maradi, Zinder and Tahoua were hit by successive invasions of locusts which devoured crops, it took until last week for aid shipments to begin in earnest.

Last autumn, a first call for funds for Niger by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) met with no pledges. On 8 July, hoping to capitalise on the African focus of the G8 summit at Gleneagles, the WFP renewed its call. But of the $30m (£17m) it requested, donors came up with only one third.

Forty-four tons of high-energy biscuits sent by the WFP arrived at the weekend. France also pledged a €4.6m (£3.2m) increase in its food aid contributions. Mr Kouchner said his charity, Réunir, had taken in more than 64 tons of food aid in three weeks.