Leading article: Why did no one hear the alarm bells from Niger?

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The Independent Online

The carousel of blame has begun over this African country. It is all the fault of the G8 leaders who gathered at Gleneagles and pledged that aid to Africa would double by 2010, even as children perished in the Niger desert sands. It is the fault of the international community which ignored last November's UN reports of a looming crisis. It is the fault of the World Food Programme for having cried wolf too many times before.

Then there were the aid agencies, who sent out press releases but did not prioritise Niger's case. There was the media which in Britain, between November and March, printed just 65 words about the problem. And the International Monetary Fund and the European Union who pressed Niger too hard to implement an economic adjustment programme that contributed to sharp rises in the prices of staple foods. Finally, there is the President of Niger, Mamadou Tanja, who mysteriously did not even mention the imminent crisis when he met Britain's aid minister, Hilary Benn, in February and US President George Bush in April.

In one sense, the blame trail hardly matters. What is clear is that the one group who bears least responsibility are the children, women and men who are now dying daily as a result. So what is to be done?

It is no good ignoring the context here. Niger is the second poorest place on earth. Most of the country is desert and its rapidly rising population of 11.5 million people depends heavily on the 20 per cent of the land in the south which is savannah, where livestock and crops compete for resources. But even in a good year there is hardly ever enough food to feed its people, a third of whom live in extreme poverty. A quarter of small children die before their fifth birthday, even without famine. Even the most marginal shift in production can have disastrous consequence here.

There is no quick fix for that, though there is hope in the measures agreed at Gleneagles. Niger is one of the 18 countries that qualify for its debt relief. Aid will assist it to develop what are the world's third-largest reserves of uranium. A stronger economy would be able to store grain to deal with localised crop failures. But it will take decades for the G8 package to impact.

Two things must be done. Most importantly, the public must hold the G8 leaders to what they agreed at Gleneagles. Their pledges must not be allowed to join the long litany of broken promises over Africa. (Already, for all the fine words on trade, rich nations have been backsliding on reducing farm subsidies and improving market access for Africa in the preparatory talks on trade in Geneva last week). But, most urgently, reform is needed to the way the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs works.

Last month, this newspaper said that the UN standing fund of just $50,000 (£28,000) to respond to emergencies quickly should be increased to $500,000. Hilary Benn has gone one better and proposed that the UN's Millennium Development Summit next month should agree a $1bn emergency fund, which rich countries would top up whenever a crisis depletes it.

Yet the world cannot escape the fact that early warning systems were in place in Niger and, over the past 10 months, they worked exactly as they were designed to. The problem was their alarm bells fell on deaf ears all round. That should be on the conscience of us all.