Logistical and funding constraints could cause shortages in the food aid pipeline from July onward, hampering distributions to some of Niger's 7.8 million food-insecure people, say NGOs and the World Food Programme (WFP). More cash distributions could be the answer.
"There are gaps – we don't have all the food we would like to have, and of the resources we have received, we are struggling to ensure food will be available for distribution during the critical lean season," Gianluca Ferrera, head of WFP in Niger, told IRIN. WFP has received 40,000mt of the 113,000mt needed for 2010, and expects to receive about 20,000mt in July and in August.
The government has emergency food stocks and cash to distribute over coming months. It is currently undertaking a countrywide survey of the latest food security needs, due out in July.
Aid agencies are addressing severe acute malnutrition fairly well, said Patrick Barbier, head of Médecins Sans Frontières in Niger, but many cases of moderate malnutrition, which require food supplements like grains, oil and pulses, are not being met.
Upstream and downstream
WFP's Ferrera told IRIN there were "upstream" and "downstream" challenges to the food pipeline. "Upstream problems are: ensuring we have enough money to buy the food that we need, and that we have it in time." WFP is US$22 million short of the $124 million it will cost to buy 113,000mt of food.
Downstream problems include difficulties in transporting the food to rural areas; the arrival of the rains, which could make roads impassable; and ongoing delays in obtaining cargo clearance for shipped food. Most of WFP's fortified corn-soya blend (CSB) comes from the United States and Europe, and arrives at the ports of Lomé in Togo and Cotonou in Benin.
WFP has launched its largest ever regional procurement drive, looking to fill 30,000mt of the food gap with maize, millet and beans from Benin, Ghana, Togo, Mali, and Burkina Faso; so far half of this quantity has been bought.
Ferrera said the agency would expand regional purchases if it could obtain the extra $22 million. Nigeria is not seen as an option for sourcing food because WFP had experienced difficulties in obtaining export permits and clearance when it tried to buy grains there in 2005.
Despite local imports, gaps are likely. "WFP food may not be sufficient for the number of people in need – additional solutions must be considered," Severine Courtiol, head of programmes in Niger at Save the Children, an international NGO, told IRIN.
Cash or seeds?
"Cash [distributions], where possible," would have to make up the shortfall in food, Courtiol said. They were quicker than food, and cut out having to pay heavy customs, as well as delivery and transport problems. But, "We also need to find the cash."
Many markets in towns and cities are functioning well and have sufficient grain, much of it from Nigeria, Benin and Burkina Faso, an update by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) noted in May 2010.
The update on the Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder regions of southern Niger was based on FEWSNET's own assessments and those by Concern Worldwide, an NGO that combats poverty and hunger.
"If we had cash I think it could be an option, especially in urban areas ... we can expect urban markets to keep working relatively well," said Courtiol. Ferrera said market conditions in rural areas varied but, in general, grain prices were rising and imports dwindling, as was usual in the lean season.
Save the Children has upped its cash distributions in the Aguie and Tessaoua districts of the Maradi region in southern Niger, with help from the European Commission and US government.
Concern Worldwide offers vulnerable families a choice between seeds to plant, plus a small cash stipend, or $37 (20,000 CFA) per month in cash, distributed via mobile phones from January to September. In Tahoua province, southwestern Niger, fertilizers, food, and therapeutic food for severely malnourished children are also provided.
In discussions with community members, more people said they would choose cash rather than seeds.
Communities with the greatest crop failure – some had 90 percent or above – or that lived further away from a market, tended to opt for seeds, while those with market access, lower crop losses, or limited access to land, tended to choose cash.
Tom Arnold, head of NGO Concern Worldwide, said aid agency coverage was relatively good and NGOs were coping, but food security could deteriorate in coming weeks. "There is potentially a very high risk that problems will get a lot worse," he warned. "It takes time to mobilize and distribute food."
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