G8 summit: The hunger game

Broken pledges from rich nations have put millions at risk of famine

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Leading charities have issued a grim warning to the world's top leaders meeting today for the G8 summit at President Barack Obama's country retreat at Camp David: their failure to keep previous promises is tipping poor countries into famine.

One of the worst hit is the African country of Niger where the lives of six million children are in the balance, the British charity Save the Children has warned. Serious malnutrition is sweeping the sub-Saharan nation. Yesterday, the charity announced that it was shifting its work in the country to "crisis response" level after world leaders had ignored months of warnings about the deteriorating situation there.

The emergency in Niger is a sign of what can happen if hunger is not tackled before it is too late, said Save the Children's chief executive Justin Forsyth. "The crisis there is reaching a new level of seriousness – children are dying because of hunger, and that is not just shocking but totally unacceptable. We must work immediately to stave off the worst."

Niger is now one of the hungriest places on earth. Some 80 per cent of harvests have failed. Locusts have destroyed crops. Food prices have tripled. The poorest families have been reduced to eating leaves to survive. The government of Niger has done as well as it could with limited resources, Save the Children says, but it has only half the money required. The vast majority of families in the worst-affected areas do not have enough food to survive the summer without help.

The same dilatory response of international donors, as was apparent in East Africa last year, is putting millions of lives at risk. World leaders promised at the G8 meeting in L'Aquila in Italy in 2009 that they would invest $22bn (£14bn) to improve global food security and fund new agricultural initiatives. That flagship programme is set to expire at the end of this year – without being delivered. According to a detailed accounting study by ONE, the aid lobby group founded by Bono and Bob Geldof, only $6.5bn of the pledged $22bn has been delivered.

President Obama will today announce plans to back agriculture investment plans in developing countries which have been given a seal of approval by the big donors. Agencies like ONE have given this cautious approval hoping it will tackle hunger and malnutrition in the way that the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative helped poor countries deal with Third World debt. If it works the plan could lift 50 million people out of poverty across six African Nations: Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Tanzania. But agencies are still concerned that the funding might not materialise, as before.

It is a small step, given the scale of the crisis, said Save the Children. And its emphasis on private -sector investment in agriculture, which might produce benefits in the medium-term, will not do enough to directly address hunger and malnutrition in places like Niger now.

Agencies want to see the G8 also focus on the quality, not just the quantity, of food. Millions of children are not getting the required vitamins, minerals and nutrients within the first few years of their life, restricting their mental and physical growth. A quarter of the world's children suffer from the stunting produced by chronic malnutrition.

"Children need not just enough to eat, but the right sort of food and nutrition," said Mr Forsyth. "A food security package from the G8 must have nutrition at its core." He has been pressing David Cameron to push for concerns over stunting to be part of the Camp David initiative – and to work for it to be delivered when the UK takes over the G8 chair.

On Sunday, the focus shifts to Chicago where President Obama hosts two dozen Nato leaders to discuss Afghanistan. Oxfam and 20 other leading NGOs will call on Nato and the Afghan government to agree commitments to ensure Afghan National Security Forces are able to protect civilians.

Niger: Too little, too late for little Issia

Charities warn that more than one million children are at risk of severe malnutrition across West Africa, and are urging G8 leaders to step in to save them.

But for some, it is already too late. Two-year-old Issia Saidou was brought to a Save the Children clinic in Niger, suffering from dysentery. His mother, Mariama Tsahirou, was desperate to save her son after the deaths of four of her eight children. But despite more than three weeks of treatment, doctors could not save the boy: he died of complications related to severe malnutrition on 6 May.

"The day my child died I was so upset because in three months, I'd lost two children. I pray to God to protect the children that are still alive," says Mariama, who is now nine months pregnant. "I'm worried about my unborn child because I myself don't have enough food."

Niger is one of countries worst-hit by the hunger crisis, with 6.4 million people estimated to be affected.

Jonathan Hyams

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