Saturday, August 13, 2005

What's the matter with Niger?

I asked this question a few days ago, and the Times answers How Did Niger Become the Crisis of the Day?:
People are starving to death in Niger, but famine is also whittling away the populations across the region and beyond, in Mali, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Eritrea and southern Sudan.

So how did Niger become the crisis of the day?

"These things in some ways are arbitrary, which is disturbing," said Ashley Tsongas, interim policy adviser for humanitarian response at Oxfam America. "It's largely up to which the media eye is going to fall on this year, and it shouldn't be that chancy."

Officials at relief groups and the United Nations offered a variety of reasons why Niger has become the recent focus of the food crisis that has afflicted so many African countries but does not always inspire such attention.

It is relatively easy to get permission to enter, unlike Sudan and Zimbabwe. It is at peace, and thus its emergency is not one induced by war, civil unrest or political machination. Its latest woes are still new.

"It hasn't been around for the last two years in the same way as, say, Ethiopia, where there's definitely a feeling among donors of, 'Oh, Ethiopia again,' " Ms. Tsongas said.

Add skeletal babies, and journalists and camera crews start arriving in hordes. The stories they transmit prick the consciences of donor governments and individuals, who open their pocketbooks and unleash the money to address the crisis finally.
Sudan Famine
What a disaster. Read the whole story. The UN's ability to respond to impending crises is limited by member nations' willingness to pony up, and they only contribute when a crisis gets too expensive to ignore. The UN asked for $16.2 million for Niger in May. The appeal raised $3.6 million.

Now, as CNN and Co. show up with cameras rolling, the UN has gotten pledges and commitments of $45 million, but it'll cost $81 million to deal with the famine now.

In Shake Hands with the Devil General Dallaire describes similar supply problems in Rwanda. Until the coup and the genocide started, he couldn't get office supplies, ammunition, food, or boots on the ground. The mission was understaffed from day one, and it was a struggle to get any country to sign on to a mission to uphold a ceasefire. Once the fighting started, no one wanted their troops to be in harm's way.

I know people, including our interim ambassador, oppose giving more authority to the UN. In the end, tragedies like the famine throughout the world and genocide in Rwanda and Sudan are preventable. But we can't be purely responsive, and that's all the UN can be because of how it's structured.

When the UN begins a peace-keeping mission, or undertakes food relief, the first thing they need to do is get people to give them money to do it. If people won't pony up a little bit of money, they're stuck paying many times more when it turns photogenic.

It's a disgusting system that won't be fixed without a stronger U.N.