by J. R. Bullington
Food for Thought
This outpouring of international generosity is both needed and welcome. However, as with most emotional, media-driven responses to complex problems, it has weaknesses.Especially with famines, it seems, the media’s focus and the international aid it generates always arrive late. Food shortages are fairly easy to predict, and this one was in fact predicted last November, soon after it became apparent that the harvest was poor. But agricultural statistics and economic indicators can never be as telegenic and compelling as images of skeletal children with distended bellies.
Such pictures and the accompanying commentary claiming that millions of people are facing starvation have the unintended consequence of driving already high food prices even higher because of panic, profiteering and hoarding. Then, weeks or months later, when the food shipments begin arriving from abroad, prices drop dramatically. If, as is often the case, this coincides with an average or better harvest, farmers (three quarters of the population in Niger) have to sell their production at lower than normal prices and are driven even deeper into poverty. Thus, food aid can do harm as well as good.
Experts have long recognized the potentially perverse consequences of food aid, and organizations such as USAID and the UN’s World Food Program are trying to limit them as they respond to Niger’s immediate needs. Some well meaning but less sophisticated donors, however, are not so careful.Another danger in this media-hype-and-emotional-response syndrome is that it tends to give the impression of a temporary problem (in Niger’s case, drought and locusts) that can be solved with short term measures such as emergency food aid. In fact, Niger’s food insecurity is structural and long term, with multiple causes, and it can effectively be addressed only with development aid that promotes sustainable economic growth.
Part of my job includes working with mothers to rehabilitate severely malnourished children. Since January, I have been working with a pair of twins and their mother in a neighboring village. The twins, Amara and Boubacar, weighed only nine pounds each when they reached their first birthday.
My friend Indi, a nurse at the local clinic, and I have been visiting the twins’ house over the past eight months. During each visit, Indi and I discuss nutrition and hygiene with the twins’ mother. Our instruction has been partially productive: the mother has been diligently preparing a protein-enriched porridge for her children, but she has yet to improve hygiene in her household. Despite Indi’s and my constant reiterations about the importance of sanitation, nothing seems to change. Bowls of food left open and covered with flies, chickens eating out of cooking pots, and waste scattered throughout the yard where the children play is the scene that often greets us when we visit the twins’ house.
For the past several months, the twins have been showing signs of amelioration, like steady weight gain. Just the other day, however, I saw the twins and their mother at the clinic. Both twins were sick with vomiting and diarrhea, and their frail bodies had lost all evidence of the last eight months’ progress. I am hoping that antibiotics the twins received will restore their health. I am wary, however, knowing that the unsanitary conditions in which these children live may attack their defenseless bodies with a fatal infection any day now. While I have tried to help rehabilitate the twins as best I can, I am convinced that the only way to reduce malnutrition among young children in Niger is to encourage primary school education for girls.Research has shown that girls’ education has a direct impact on infant mortality rates. In Niger, only 16 percent of the population is literate, and a mere 24 percent of girls attend modern school. Increasing school attendance among young girls seems to be the most viable approach in reducing malnutrition and infant mortality in Niger. If the twins’ mother had attended school, it is likely that her hygiene and feeding habits would be dramatically different. If nothing else, she would better understand the connection between dirt and sickness, and perhaps be more responsive to my counseling. While the news headlines scream “CHILDREN ARE STARVING IN NIGER,” the solution seems so simple. If they are starving, bring them food. End of story? Not quite. There is no “quick-fix” that will help Niger out of the hole in which it finds itself. The best way to help Niger is to work with its people and its government toward long-term goals, like increasing primary education for all children, reducing population growth, slowing desertification, and improving access to healthcare for all Nigeriens.
Holy-Unholy Alliance for Aid
New York Times pundit David Brooks wrote a perceptive column recently on the politics of fighting poverty. He said:
With regard to foreign aid, a third element should be added to that alliance: moderate or conservative internationalists (my tribe) who see international assistance not only as a humanitarian obligation but also as an important element of American “soft power” that, properly directed and administered, can serve our interests as well as those of the recipients.
Peace Corps certainly represents the liberal impulse. While I’ve met a handful of Volunteers who are conservative, the overwhelming majority is somewhere between left and far left in political orientation. A National Peace Corps Association poll of its members before the 2004 election found 87% supported John Kerry.
Evangelical Christians are well represented in Niger by some 400 American missionaries. They have been operating freely for decades, and although they have had little success in converting the overwhelmingly Muslim population to Christianity, they have earned toleration and a measure of respect for their good works. Several non-evangelical but nonetheless faith based humanitarian organizations are also very active here.
Our Volunteers frequently work in collaboration with Christian organizations such as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services that focus on development projects rather than religion. Sometimes, the Volunteers work in more limited ways with local missionaries, although they must scrupulously avoid any association with proselytizing.
At the policy level, the Bush Administration is having considerable success in bringing together an evangelical-liberal-conservative internationalist coalition in support of increased aid to Africa. Even those who are normally critical of the President and all his works are coming to recognize this.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, wrote recently that “Bush has done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did, increasing the money actually spent for aid there by two-thirds so far, and setting in motion an eventual tripling of aid for Africa….it’s worth acknowledging that Bush, and conservatives generally, have in many ways been great for the developing world.” Kristof went on to note that “Nobody gets more bang for the buck than missionary schools and clinics, and Christian aid groups like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse save lives at bargain-basement prices.”
Another unusual source of praise for the President is Julius Coles, the head of Africare, an organization with roots primarily in the African-American community that promotes and delivers aid to Africa. Coles recently wrote in the Washington Post: “A generation from now, when historians analyze the turning point in Africa’s development, they may have to credit George W. Bush with playing a surprisingly important role in the continent’s economic progress….he appears intent on being remembered as an American president who did much in real terms to secure Africa’s future.” Coles specifically praised Bush’s program to combat HIV/AIDS, the Millennium Challenge Corporation that associates increased aid with good governance, massive African debt forgiveness, and new campaigns to promote education and fight malaria.
The conservative Bush Administration has also been very supportive of the prototypically liberal Peace Corps, which has more than a third of its programs in Africa. While Congressional appropriations have been far short of what would be necessary to meet the President’s goal (stated in his 2002 State of the Union address) of doubling the size of Peace Corps, the number of Volunteers has grown by about 1000 under Bush, to more than 7700, the highest number since 1975.
Evangelicals, liberals and conservative internationalists can indeed work together to achieve broadly shared objectives, and they are now doing so to aid Africa.
One of our favorites was Rita Herkal, a member of the first group of new Volunteers to arrive after we did. She was an outstanding Volunteer, not only surviving in the harsh environment of a small Nigerien village but actually thriving in it. She extended her normal two years of service for an additional six months, and then stayed on in Niger for several more months to travel in the Sahara with a group of nomad herders.After leaving Niger and spending some time with her family in the U.S., Rita got a job with Save the Children, a major international humanitarian organization. (Many Volunteers go on to careers with international organizations of this sort.) She was with a Save the Children affiliate called Building with Books, and her job was to help rural communities in Malawi build schools. She wrote a series of emails to us and many other Peace Corps friends describing her adventures and the progress she was making on the schools. In the most recent one, on August 24, she said, “I am happy and healthy and so satisfied with my life and what I am doing. It truly is an incredible feeling to have each minute permeated with contentment and gratification.”
Two days later, on August 26, Rita was killed in a bush taxi accident. (Bush taxis are the aged, crowded, unregulated, uncomfortable, dangerous vehicles that serve as the primary, often only, form of public transportation in much of rural Africa.) She was 28. We should remember her as a hero who lost her life in service to humanity. She represented the best of Peace Corps, and the best of America.
J.R. Bullington is currently Country Director of the Peace Corps program in Niger. He was formerly a US Ambassador and career diplomat, with extensive service in Africa and Asia.