Leading article: The shameful delay in giving food aid to Niger

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The first flight carrying British aid left Bristol yesterday for Niger, where more than three million people, including one million children, are facing starvation after a drought and a plague of locusts swept through the stricken African country. It is, as so often, too little too late.

Aid agencies have been warning of a developing crisis in west Africa since last October. A month later, the United Nations issued the first official appeal to Western donor countries for help, and got almost no response. It appealed again in March and got just $1m (£570,000). In May, it upped its appeal to $18m as famine loomed. To date, it has received only about a fifth of what it called for - with most money coming from Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg. Other governments promised they would give, but did not even get round to saying how much. Even when Africa was centre stage at the G8 summit in Gleneagles, the money still did not come.

It would be facile to blame the G8 summit for that. It made significant moves on aid and debt - the long-term structural issues which address what keeps Africa poor. In Niger, 82 per cent of the population relies on subsistence farming and more than half the population lives in poverty, and a third in poverty so extreme that one in four young children routinely dies there each year, even without famine. It will take a decade or more for the G8 package to impact on that.

But addressing long-term issues does not mean we can take our eye off the short-term crises. More money has come in for Niger in the past 10 days than over the past 10 months. That is because more than 1,000 starving children have been admitted to Médecins sans Frontières emergency feeding programmes every week for the past month. And this time, television cameras were there to see it. Because of their condition, and because the food aid which should have been trucked in months ago now has to be flown in, it costs £50 to save a child who could have been helped for 50p had the world responded when it was first asked.

Some swift practical changes could be introduced to address that. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a standing fund of just $50,000 to respond to emergencies quickly. And it is only for loans, which must be repaid. Rich nations should increase that fund to $500,000 - to be dispersed as grants not loans - to respond immediately while donor governments are being persuaded of the need to act.

But the world needs to answer a more profound question. Why is it that, time after time, the governments of the rich world wait until the pictures of skeletal children fill our television screens before deciding we must act?

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