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Ambassador Bullington for years has been a valued contributor to this journal of accounts of his work as director the Peace Corps in Niger and, importantly, the service of the dedicated volunteers in country.—Ed.

Letter from Niger, September 2005

by J. R. Bullington

Leaving Niger

Children pounding grain in a rural village

As we come within three months of departure, ordinary activities begin to stand out as the last of their kind: the last trip to visit Volunteers in Gotheye, the last swearing-in ceremony for new Volunteers, the last Thanksgiving dinner in Niamey. Tuy-Cam and I will be leaving in February after five and a half years in this country. She wanted to leave at the end of my normal five-year Peace Corps tour of duty last summer; I wanted to extend for another year; we compromised on six months.This compromise perhaps reflects some of the ambiguities of living in Niger. It is one of the hottest, driest, dustiest places in the world, yet we have been comfortable almost all the time. Dread diseases are common, and even strong young people are often sick, yet we have enjoyed excellent health except for the normal afflictions of advancing years. It is the world’s poorest country, yet we are taking away a richly rewarding experience.

This will be my next-to-last “Letter from Niger,” and I want to use it to reflect on the country’s most salient characteristic, poverty.

Poster Country for Poverty
There are many ways to measure poverty, but one of the most common and comprehensive is the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index, which combines per capita income with several health and social indicators such as life expectancy and literacy levels. On the 2005 index, Niger was dead last, 177 out of 177 countries ranked. For the past several years it had been next to last, ahead of Sierra Leone, but the end of that country’s long civil war enabled it to move up a couple of notches.

Some of the grim indicators:

  • Per capita income is $200 ($35,000 in the US).
  • 61% of the people live on less than a dollar a day.
  • One of every four children born will die before reaching the age of five.
  • Adult literacy is 14%.
  • Life expectancy is 44 (77 in the US).
  • There are three doctors per 100,000 people (276 in the US).
  • Less than five percent of the people have electricity.

The list could go on and on. Americans and Europeans who have not visited Niger or a country like it have never seen and cannot even imagine this sort of poverty. And the saddest point is that long-term trends point not up, but down. Both anecdotal evidence and statistics confirm that most people in Niger are poorer today than they were three or four decades ago.

There are many reasons for Niger’s deep and worsening poverty. Following are the seven that I believe to be the most important.

1. Explosive Population Growth
With eight children per woman, Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world. Even with high child mortality and low life spans, this has produced a sustained growth rate of about 3.3% per year, a rate that doubles the population every 20 years. It was three million in 1960; it is currently 13 million; it is projected to reach 24 million in 2020.

Children in Jen Rice’s village, Falmey region. With 49% of the population under 15, continued rapid population growth is assured for at least another generation.

Since 80% of the people live off subsistence agriculture and herding, and essentially all arable land is already under cultivation, the consequence of this sort of population growth is predictable and inexorable impoverishment. Only a spectacular improvement in agricultural productivity or greatly increased employment opportunities outside the agricultural sector can forestall Malthusian outcomes. Neither of these possibilities is anywhere in view.

Camel and colt in the southward marching Sahara

2. Environmental Degradation
Since 1945, the average annual rainfall lines that define the Sahara Desert have moved southward by 100 to 150 kilometers all across Niger. Land that in living memory was green and productive has become barren wasteland. One of the most dramatic indicators is Lake Chad, on the border between Niger and Chad. In 1960 it was the size of New Hampshire; now it’s the size of Rhode Island.
This desertification is partly due to natural causes, the normal cycle of wetter and drier periods that is characteristic of the Sahara. It is also partly man-made. Food production to meet the needs of the growing population has been increased not by productivity improvements but by bringing increasingly marginal land into production and exhausting land formerly allowed to lie fallow for a time and regenerate.

3. Primitive Technology

Mike Toppe at well in his village, with a log grooved by years of drawing water with ropes

A time traveler from 1000 or even 2000 years ago, magically taken to a rural Nigerien village, would find little technology that would be unfamiliar. The houses, the agricultural practices, the way of life generally are pretty much the same now as then. Even simple machines like pulleys to draw water from wells and animal-drawn plows to till the earth are rare.The common scenes in a Nigerien village are much like the illustrations of Biblical stories I recall from childhood Sunday school books.

4. Geography
The geographical deck is stacked against Niger. Two-thirds of the country lies within the world’s largest desert, and the rest is along its fringe. This is life at the margin of human habitability on the planet.

But it’s not only the heat and scarcity of water and other natural resources that keep Niger poor, but also its isolation and distance from the sea and major trade routes. Few people realize that Africa is three times as big as the continental United States. Niger, in the midst of this vastness, is remote from global commerce and the wealth it brings.

5. Political Instability

Touregs at Agadez peace ceremony, 2000

Like most African countries, Niger has been plagued by political instability since its independence from French colonialism in 1960. The decade of the 1990s was particularly difficult, with two military coups and a long-running rebellion in the north. Government largely ceased to function, and many donors, including USAID, withdrew.Since 1999, when a new government was democratically elected, the situation has been stable and most donors have returned; but it has been necessary to re-start the development process at the very low level to which the country had regressed, and the stability that has been achieved remains fragile.

Alan Gutman assisting in polio vaccinations

6. Disease
As indicated by child mortality, life expectancy and other measures, Nigeriens are often sick. The worst problem is malaria, but other diseases are common as well. The HIV/AIDS rate is about one percent, much less than in many other African countries, but it is getting worse. And the health care delivery system is poor to non-existent for most people.

Disease is not only a humanitarian concern but also a cause of poverty. Sick people can’t work well, so productivity is low. A WHO study showed that malaria alone cuts economic output in Africa by at least six percent.

7. Status of Women

Women drawing water in Ouallam

Gender roles are strictly defined in this traditional Islamic society, with women doing much of the hardest work as well as caring for children. Female literacy is only one third the male rate; nearly half of all girls are married by the time they are 15; and pre-menopausal women are pregnant 28% of the time.We tend to think of this as a social problem and a matter of gender justice, but it’s also an economic constraint to development. The fact that half the population is much less productive than it could be has major implications for the persistence of poverty.

Rays of Hope
Amidst all this gloom there are some rays of hope. Democracy and political stability, though still fragile, seem to be taking root, and the Government has adopted generally sound policies including economic liberalization, political decentralization, and measures to improve the status of women and combat disease. Oil exploration is underway near Lake Chad, and prospects are promising. Some scientists have noted signs that the long southward creep of the Sahara may have halted or even reversed. Much of the country’s foreign debt has been forgiven, and donors are again very active.

And perhaps most importantly, the people’s spirit has not been broken. They remain hopeful and remarkably happy in the face of all these hardships, and they have not fallen prey to the calls of Islamic extremism, political radicalism or ethnic hatred that have kept much of Africa in turmoil and poverty. Our Peace Corps Volunteers, who live among the common people and speak their languages, report that in spite of the grinding, pervasive poverty, life in a Nigerien village is not at all gloomy. They enjoy living among these people, and find them kind and hospitable. This is a major reason why our Volunteers extend their service beyond the normal two years at a rate double the global Peace Corps average.

Amanda Goetz, with women preparing for a wedding

Still, as I prepare to leave Niger, it is difficult to be optimistic about the country’s future. The problems are just too enormous, and the resistance to change, especially in terms of reducing population growth, is just too deeply ingrained.Yet we, the rich, developed countries, cannot give up on Niger. We have a moral imperative to help these poorest of the world’s poor people; and we also have an interest in preventing Niger from becoming another failed state that generates conflict and breeds terrorists and extremism.

Even if I can’t leave with a sense of optimism for Niger, I will leave with continuing hope and determination to help, as well as with gratitude for a great experience and affection for Nigerien friends and colleagues and Peace Corps Volunteers who remain to fight the good fight.


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.


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