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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Meanwhile, People Starve - New York Times

Meanwhile, People Starve - New York TimesAugust 14, 2005
Meanwhile, People Starve

Were it not for Hilary Andersson, a BBC television journalist, Niger's starving people would very likely be getting as little attention as the starving citizens of nearby Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Her wrenching report from Niger, where more than three million people are now in danger of starving to death, set off a worldwide aid effort that a year of United Nations warnings could not. Had attention been paid sooner, lives could have been saved, at one-eightieth - that's right, one-eightieth - what it will cost today. And easy, affordable steps that could prevent such scenes elsewhere, like a proposed United Nations $500 million emergency response fund, haven't been taken.

Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, has long lived at the mercy of an unforgiving climate, and the destruction of last year's crops through drought and crop-eating locusts is the main cause of its present plight. The usual contributors to famine elsewhere, like war, dictatorship or crackpot economic theories, are notably absent. Niger's government is democratically elected and President Mamadou Tandja's orthodox budget-balancing and market-opening policies are regularly praised by Western leaders and international lenders.

Regrettably, Mr. Tandja has an unhealthy tendency to take that orthodoxy too far, to his people's detriment. In April, with the famine already gathering force, he imposed food tax increases as part of a budget-balancing package. Amid widespread protests, he later backed off. But in an interview with the BBC last week, he insisted that his people "look well-fed" and that reports to the contrary were "false propaganda" being spread by aid agencies to attract funding.

For the historically minded, his bizarre insensitivity to his people's suffering evokes parallels with Ireland's deadly famine of more than a century and a half ago, where the rigid laissez-faire ideology of the ruling British authorities made the bad problem of a failed potato crop needlessly worse. Then, locally grown grains were sold abroad for profit while millions of Irish peasants were allowed to starve. Today, market stalls in Maradi, a major trading center of Niger, are piled high with food for the few who can afford it, while elsewhere in the same city thousands of starving and desperate people jostle for scarce relief supplies.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, has taught, rightly, that "no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Functioning is the key word; leaders who are truly accountable to their people have strong incentives to take timely preventive action. Mr. Tandja, whom President Bush hailed at the White House this June as an exemplary democrat, clearly needs a refresher course in humane economics and accountable democracy.

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