Niger Children Face High Levels of Malnutrition, New Survey Shows

Niger’s children still face high levels of malnutrition despite international aid efforts earlier this year that saved 90 percent of the more than 300,000 children treated, warns a new U.N.-backed survey.

Malnutrition rates range from 9 to 18 percent and inadequate infant and young child feeding practices are likely causes, according to the survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the government of Niger, the United States Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Niger suffered from a severe food crisis this year, caused by an accumulation of several factors – poor rains, locust invasions that decimated crops, and rising food prices that put available food out of reach for the most impoverished.

Images of the gaunt eyes and scrawny bodies of Niger's children shocked the world into action, bringing aid to over 300,000 malnourished children through the Government, UNICEF and more than 20 international and national non-governmental organizations, with support from the international community.

“We are proud of this unique accomplishment,” said Noel Marie Zagre, Head of Nutrition Section at UNICEF Niger, according to a report Thursday at the U.N. News Center.

However, Zagre noted that while 90 percent of treated children recovered, “the results of the survey we conducted confirm that the work is far from over.”

Action by Churches Together (ACT) issued a similar warning last week regarding the crisis in Niger.

“This autumn’s harvest was good, but unfortunately many people sold futures of their crops in order to buy food during the crisis, and are thus faced with the very real possibility of shortages again next year,” the Geneva-based global alliance of churches and related agencies noted in a report published last Friday.

An ACT Appeal to respond to this situation was issued on Aug.9, 2005 and revised on Sept. 14, 2005. Lutheran World Relief (LWR) with a 30-year history of development work in Niger, is one of two ACT members implementing the ACT appeal in response to the crisis. Swiss Interchurch Aid, HEKS is the other.

Last week, LWR received more than a half million dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help nomadic communities in Niger avoid food crisis through new, innovative approaches to improve pastoralists’ food security.

"Even though the food crisis has faded from the headlines, it still continues and needs our constant attention," said LWR President Kathryn Wolford in a statement released by the agency. "It's clear that we need to focus a great deal of energy and effort to address the natural and manmade forces that, left alone, will only continue the cycle of poverty and the possibility for starvation."

With the support of the Gates Foundation grant, LWR will implement an innovative four-pronged, community-based approach to help address the problems faced by pastoralists during the food crisis. The approach includes: digging community wells, which will make most vulnerable populations less susceptible to drought in the future and help stabilize traditional livestock management practices; establishing community feed banks to stabilize prices and availability of animal feed, thereby increasing the net income of the most vulnerable and giving them protection against economic shocks; establishing clearly delineated migration routes, agreed upon by both the herders and neighboring farmers, which will diminish conflict between these communities; and finally, restocking herds through local women's associations to address both the immediate need created by the decimation of existing herds, as well as create a sustainable, cooperative method of keeping herds healthy.

An action plan based on the results of the new U.N.-backed survey includes: continued support for Government and NGO therapeutic feeding centers; prevention through behavior change, improved feeding practices and systematic de-worming; support for providing access to free basic health care for children under five; and support for Government efforts to design a national nutrition policy based on mid- and long-term perspectives.