October 2009: I was on a field mission with Max, one of our humanitarian experts. He was extremely worried. The rumours that had been circulating now seem to have been confirmed: Niger was about to experience a major humanitarian catastrophe if no preventive action was taken. This would result in immense suffering and probably in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country and in the region as a whole.
The first stop was a hospital in Titao, Burkino Faso. With European funding, Medecins sans Frontières had set up a hastily built structure to serve as a clinic for malnourished children. The situation was just as Max had anticipated and the place was packed with infants and their mothers. The head of the clinic explained that a supplementary structure had been built in under a week to accommodate the additional victims of malnutrition.
We left the hospital and continued on our journey to Niger. The idea was now to see what was happening there and to the monitor the situation in the field.
Max's worst fears were confirmed on arrival. Although the country has a functioning health system able to provide treatment for children - we found only around ten malnourished children in a fairly well equipped hospital. Considering what was happening less than one hundred kilometres away, the children's ward should have been overflowing. It could only mean that the victims were unable to reach the clinic. We anticipated the worst.
Half the children at the centre were in such a pitiful state that the aid worker from the NGO who accompanied us thought it unlikely that they would survive. We can only imagine the state of other suffering infants just a few kilometres from the centre and unable to reach it.
Over the next days, after hours of travelling on dirt tracks, we realised that many fields were dilapidated. It was obvious that the millet harvest would fail. Prolonged drought followed by unseasonal torrential rain had forced some farmers to plant their cereals as many as six times, and each time they had lost their crops. The seed stocks were probably exhausted for many farmers.
One of Max's well-informed contacts gave us the actual figures for the harvest and confirmed our fears. Agricultural production had been sorely hit. Migration by the nomads and their flocks to the south had begun two months early, even travelling beyond the nation's borders to find new pastures. The result was a shortage of both meat and milk in the country. Food prices had begun to rise. All the conditions for famine were assembled, and it could possibly develop into one of the worst that the region had ever known.
Returning to the capital that same evening, Max organised an urgent meeting with the principal donors of the region and the country. Gathered around a table were representatives from the European Union's Delegation, the USAID Office of Food for Peace (FFP) and U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), UNICEF, Food for Peace, the US Ambassador and Max, representing the Humanitarian Aid department of the Commission. Max briefed them on his monitoring and assessment mission. The other participants gave their personal observations which deepened our apprehension. The participants also discussed the resources available, and what could be made available by each and every organisation. At the end of this long meeting, an action plan was established; everyone knew their role in the huge push to avoid a serious humanitarian crisis. Max sent his report to Brussels the same evening so that decisions could be taken on the developing situation.
Max is one of the hundreds of humanitarian experts working in the Commission's humanitarian field offices throughout the world. They live and work in proximity to the humanitarian crises with which people are confronted every year. They are the eyes and ears of the Commission's Humanitarian Aid department and enable us to work within our mandate and come to the assistance of the most needy. The aim is to save lives and maintain the dignity of the affected populations without discrimination. This aid is neutral, independent and impartial. Our colleagues are the guarantee that the funding provided by the Commission reaches the most vulnerable in the most effective manner through our partners in the field.
Susana Perez Diaz
ECHO Information Officer