For Better or Worse: Saving Niger

In Uncategorized on October 16, 2006 at 7:58 am

Is the USA better off saving or destroying Niger? Before 2003, when it was alleged that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger, most Americans had never heard of this landlocked, Saharan country in West Africa. Then in 2005 infamy struck again, this time in the form of a devastating but well-publicized famine – devastating enough for Anderson Cooper of CNN (among others) to spend a week broadcasting pictures and stories of malnourished children with distended bellies, dying of dehydration and hunger. Poorest of the poor, Niger is ranked last – 177 out of 177 – on the United Nations Human Development Index. It should be shocking to know that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission in Niger has been closed since 1997. This needs to change.

The richest country in the world, for whom a billion dollars can be described as a statistical blip, officially only spend about $14 million dollars in development assistance money – on the poorest country on the planet. So what are we waiting for?

My opinion is biased. Niger has a special place in my life; I lived there for three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the end of the 1990’s, as the aid was cut. My home was a mud hut in a rural village of herders and subsistence farmers; my neighbors were among the poorest people on earth. I saw the effects of US aid policy; I was able to break through some of the myths and stereotypes Americans have of Africans, and vice-versa.

During the 2005 famine, many Americans, some at the behest other Niger Returned Peace Corps Volunteers like my wife and I, threw a little money at Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working on Nigerien famine relief. Some of these organizations, like Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program, did a heroic job of saving kids lives and staving off total disaster. All this did was put a fresh band-aid on a gaping wound.

USAID currently administers its Niger programs through their West Africa Regional Program (WARP), based out of Mali and Senegal. USAID had a long-term presence in Niger until the mission was finally closed in 1997. The most direct reason for closure was to punish the Niger regime for two coup d’etat’s that occurred in 1996 and 1999. The more general reason was a wider drawdown and consolidation of foreign development assistance during the Clinton administration. However, in January 2000 the free and fairly elected and democratic regime of President Mahamadou Tandja took power in Niger, and was subsequently re-elected in another internationally accepted election in 2005. Therefore, the one of original reasons for closing the USAID Mission in Niger is no longer valid.

Today, Nigeriens are served by a patchwork of NGO’s, most of the largest of which are funded by USAID. The UN and other European agencies round out the list. These organizations are mostly on the same page but the system is lacking in the holistic development strategies that could serve Nigeriens better. The 2005 crisis serves as a bitter example: Studies have shown, an early response to the Niger famine would have cost $1 a day per child to prevent malnutrition, while instead by the peak of the crisis it was costing $80 to save a child’s life.

The Niger government does not have the capacity to meet its people’s needs – Nigeriens need a long-term partner to help them develop. The new USAID mission would be responsible for financial disbursements, and also work in partnership with the Niger government to constantly monitor their humanitarian and development needs. The Niger government was calling for assistance well before the last millet of the 2004 season had run out – a responsive and dedicated USAID staff could have helped coordinate NGO intervention before the crisis cascaded out of hand.

Niger is a friendly country – at no time did I ever feel threatened for being American. Indeed, Nigeriens still cling to the image of America as a mythic land of opportunity. But this image is under constant threat – it needs to be strengthened by a more robust US foreign aid policy. Chuck Cecil, US Ambassador to Niger from 1996-1999, in an interview I conducted with him two years ago, made a very salient point: “Niger is the world’s poorest Muslim country and if people think that despair breeds fundamentalism then maybe we should be doing something about it.” This may be Niger’s leverage in the new post 9/11 system.

Re-opening the USAID Mission in Niger is the right thing to do. It would be extremely meaningful and just if the US, as the richest country in the world, could pay special attention to the poorest country in the world. This policy would receive wide support from Americans if they were sufficiently informed about the issue. We can most certainly spare the money, and the building is even still there. What does it say about us if the richest do not help the poorest? After all, we are all one human family, for better or worse.

(This was an Op-Ed Article written as an exercise for my Policy Analysis Class – let me know what you think!)

  1. This an extremely well written analysis of the current situation in Niger. There is little question that even the smallest amount of aid coupled with advice on infrastrucuture would have a large, positive effect on this country. Question, we presumably have an ambassador there, what is he/she doing about helping this democratically elected government to succeed?


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