After five years in Niger as director of the Peace Corps program, I’m glad the country and its problems are finally getting some attention not related to uranium, Joe Wilson, and American partisan politics. However, as I watch the drama unfolding in the countryside, where most of our volunteers are posted, and as I see it reported in the international media, I keep thinking of the refrain from a 1960s anti-war song: “When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn.” It was sung not as a question but as mournful commentary.
The pitiful pictures of emaciated children are sadly representative of conditions in several parts of the country. The distorted impression they tend to convey, however, is that they result only from a temporary emergency, a famine brought on by drought and locusts.
Unfortunately, similar pictures could have been made last year, or the year before that, or any year during recent decades. Malnourished children and hungry people are part of the texture of daily life in Niger, especially during the annual “hungry season,” the three months or so before harvest, when the previous year’s harvest is mostly gone.
This year, the hungry season is leaner than usual, but not dramatically so. The 2004 grain harvest was eleven percent below the five-year average, but twenty-two peercent above the 2000 harvest that led to an even worse hungry season in 2001, which few people outside Niger even noticed.
The sad fact is that the current food crisis is not a temporary emergency. It is the inevitable result of a downward spiral of chronic poverty that has been underway for many years. It cannot be effectively addressed by emergency relief operations, however generous and welcome they may be. In the absence of greatly increased development assistance (as opposed to relief handouts), sustained over many years, Niger is doomed to recurrent famines and other humanitarian disasters that are likely to become more frequent and more severe with each passing year.
There are many reasons why Niger finds itself in what development economist Jeffrey Sachs calls a “poverty trap,” from which there is no easy escape.
First is the very depth of its poverty, which is quite literally unimaginable for most Americans. On the UN’s Human Development Index, which combines per capita income with several health and social measures, Niger ranks second from the bottom, ahead only of war-ravaged Sierra Leone.This means that in “normal” times, forty peercent of the children are malnourished and one in four will die before reaching their fifth birthday. (This is not only due to food shortages – it is also related to lack of potable water, poor sanitation, the prevalence of malaria and other diseases, and several other factors.) Other grim poverty indicators are an adult literacy rate of sixteen percent and life expectancy of forty-six. Inflation-adjusted per capita in-come in 1980 was $234; in 2003 it was $185.
There are many reasons for this downward poverty spiral, including environmental degradation as the Sahara moves southward; a decade of political instability in the 1990s; and the low status of women, with forty-seven percent married by the age of fifteen. The most important reason, however, is the 3.6 percent population growth rate, which doubles the number of people in just twenty years. With fifty-seven percent of the current population under eighteen, continued rapid growth is assured for many years to come.
Can anything be done that will lift Niger out of this poverty trap? It’s difficult to be optimistic. However, I find it morally unacceptable and politically unwise not to at least try to provide effective help, not just the band-aids of emergency relief.
There are some points of light amidst the gloom. The brightest is that since 1999 Niger has had a stable, democratic government that has adopted sound economic and social policies. Moreover, although the country is over ninety percent Muslim, it is not extremist, and other religions (and some 400 mostly American Christian missionaries) are well tolerated. There has been no terrorism in Niger, nor are there any known Nigerien terrorists. I’m convinced that our 100 American Peace Corps Volunteers are safer from terrorism in their Nigerien villages than they would be in Washington or New York.
When will they ever learn? We have in fact learned a lot since the 1960s about economic development and how to fight poverty. In Niger, we just need to apply those lessons.
J. R. Bullington has been Peace Corps Director in Niger since 2000. Previously he was a career Foreign Service officer and a U.S. ambassador, with extensive service in Africa and Southeast Asia. His views in this article do not necessarily represent those of Peace Corps or the U.S. Government.