Monday, August 02, 2010

Guest Voices: Offering Choices to Unheard Voices: Hunger in Niger

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a story about how the organization has been helping Niger with the famine. needs to happen in Haiti now that it is six months after the earthquake. This post was written by Niall Tierney who Concern's Country Director for Niger.

The rains failed in Niger last year: for the members of the aid community who live and work here, that meant more than just hot, dry weather. We shared the sickening knowledge that failed rains in 2009 meant that families in Niger would face the deadly threat of extreme hunger in 2010.

Concern Worldwide began tracking the first signs of this massive food crisis in October and has been in emergency mode since then. We knew we had to act early. We knew that the logistics of delivering traditional food aid in Niger would be costly and difficult. This crisis demanded innovative—and rapid—response.

So what did we do? Concern launched an early, groundbreaking response using “short-harvest” seed varieties, mobile phone technology and cash, and emergency nutrition programs to reach the most vulnerable before the food ran out— before large numbers of children became severely malnourished. And to be sure we were delivering what was needed most, we sought input from the most experienced veterans in Niger’s fight against hunger: mothers, farmers, and community members.

Our emergency programs are in Tahoua district, one of the region’s worst-affected by the food crisis. Recent surveys show that the malnutrition rate for children under five in Tahoua region is 15.8 percent. According to the World Health Organization, a malnutrition rate of 15 percent or higher indicates a humanitarian emergency.

Last week, I was anxious to get out into the villages to see the reality behind the surveys and reports, and to witness the ongoing needs and the impact of our work.

Planting Seeds

Ihoussa Sahabe (10) told me about how hard he and his parents worked hard planting and weeding, but because the rains failed, their crops failed and they have no food to eat.

About a month ago, I visited two villages, Salou 1 and Salou 2, to see our team distribute seed and cash to community members. Last week I visited again: all of that seed had been planted. I spoke to a group of kids in the village, including Aminatou Nomao, a 12-year-old girl who has never seen the inside of a classroom. She very effectively grilled me on Concern’s targeting criteria— asking me why her village had received help but not the neighbouring one, also wanting to know why some families got the seeds and cash but not others, and where we got the money that we distributed. I explained how we involve community members to help us identify the most vulnerable people for our distributions, and how we do assessments to figure out which communities have the greatest needs, and finally where the money comes from. I told her about how foreign governments and donors know that her village needs help and that ordinary people in far-away countries were helping and sending donations. Aminatou concluded: “God should help the people who are helping Concern.”

I asked the kids how they felt when they saw their harvest fail last November. Ihoussa Sahabi, a 10-year-old boy, responded with answers that were extremely humbling. I had expected, “We were worried we wouldn’t have food to eat,” but what Ihoussa said was, “We were worried for our parents. We knew that they would be so stressed, worrying about getting us children food this year. I was hot in my heart—we had worked so hard planting and weeding and everything, and then we had no food from our work.” His sincerity was powerful. Ihoussa’s dad, like almost all the fathers of the village, left to go to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to find work.

Power to the People

In Salou village, Concern worked in partnership with the community to help them choose for themselves what type of support they needed most to get through the food shortages. Families in Salou produced 60 percent less food than usual in 2009. Concern’s staff informed the community that they could choose either a seed pack with improved, drought resistant millet and cow pea seeds, as well as fertilizer and a one-off cash instalment of CFA20,000 (roughly $37) or four monthly cash transfers of CFA20,000 each ($37). The monetary value of the two options was approximately equal.

The majority of the village chose the seed-and-cash option. Samalou Samaila, the mother of one of the children I spoke with, said that she would not be able to get such good quality seed at the local market, even if she had the cash. So she chose the seed, fertilizer and cash, hedging her family’s welfare on a bigger harvest. Tawanye Djimraou, chief of the village for 38 years, told me that he thought that the seed-and-cash option was best for Salou village because people would be able to buy a little food, and that would give them the physical strength to work their farms and plant the seeds, with the hope of a better harvest. Concern offered these choices to villages experiencing the greatest food shortages. We found that the communities that had access to larger markets preferred the cash option over the seed-and-cash, principally due to their greater proximity to functioning markets where food and seed was more readily available.

Learning lessons, sharing experiences and getting better

Chief Tawanye Djimraou said his whole village is depending on him to mobilize support to get them through this food crisis.

Concern will document the impact of the choices the people made to inform future responses. We are working with Professor Jenny Aker of the Fletcher School for International Affairs to research the side-by-side effectiveness of manually distributing emergency cash to 6,500 households against a groundbreaking pilot that distributes cash through mobile technology, SMS messages, and cash distribution agents. This is the first pilot of mobile phone cash transfers ever done in a French-speaking African country. We will share the results of this research with the Government of Niger and the wider humanitarian community to help find and fund better, more cost-effective ways to prevent and fight hunger.

We are beginning to see signs that our efforts to let communities make informed choices are effective. We believe that our early response will prevent large numbers of children from becoming severely malnourished.

Village chief Tawanye’s words stuck with me: he said his whole village is relying on him to mobilize support, even though he is old and frail and nearly blind. We are committed to working in solidarity with him and communities like his— now and in the long term to provide that support. We believe that our research will provide evidence to international partners and donors and allow for greater innovation in interventions that stop hunger before it claims large numbers of lives. We also hope that our work will demonstrate that emergency responses can be tailored very effectively to local circumstances –and determined by the greatest experts in combating hunger, the people themselves.

No comments: