updated 8/5/2005 5:39:09 PM ET 2005-08-05T21:39:09

The United Nations appealed Friday for $80 million to fight a food crisis threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands in this impoverished West African nation.

The appeal was made at Garin Goubli village, 20 miles south of the eastern town of Maradi during a visit by Canadian International Cooperation Minister Ailleen Carroll and UNICEF Deputy Executive Secretary Rima Salah.

“We launch an appeal for $80 million immediately to the world to help Niger,” said Michele Falavigna, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Niger.

In the past week, three U.N. agencies — the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization — made appeals totaling $75 million for Niger. Falavigna’s appeal apparently encompassed the earlier calls.

Some $25.4 million has already been contributed or committed by donors, U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator Margareta Wahlstrom said.

The Niger crisis, blamed on drought and a locust invasion, has sparked sharp questions about the way the world responds to disasters.

Arriving late for the crisis
The international community had failed to respond to repeated U.N. appeals since November, acting only after it was too late for many and when images of starving children on TV news broadcasts made clear the situation had reached a crisis.

“We saw a child die today, it was a very sad moment for us ... I feel very guilty,” UNICEF’s Salah said after touring a center for severely malnourished children in Maradi, an eastern town where Medecins Sans Frontieres is helping to run humanitarian efforts.

“We may need to look at how the international early warning system can be improved to avoid such crises,” Carroll said.

George Osodi  /  AP
A mother stands near her child, who was said by local officials to have died hours later, at the MSF intensive care center in Maradi, Niger, on Friday.
Experts have also questioned whether the initial response was misguided, relying on subsidizing food prices rather than distributing free food for fear of hurting local markets.

The role of the government’s market reform policies, driven in part by international lenders, also should be reviewed, according to the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank.

Niger’s government raised taxes on a range of staple foods this year, saying the money generated would fund health and education. The 19 percent increases triggered protest strikes and were later lifted on wheat, rice and milk. The tax on sugar remains.

Niger is the world’s second-poorest country, with 64 percent of the 12 million inhabitants surviving on less than $1 day. Current shortages have seen food prices mount beyond what most here can pay. The price of a 220-pound bag of millet, for example, went from $23 to $44.

Aid ramps up, slowly
The international response has stepped up in recent days. Some organizations like the Association for Muslims in Africa are already distributing aid, but other groups are still awaiting supplies and dealing with logistical problems.

“Some of the food is stuck in the pipeline,” said Hassan Taifour, a worker for Save the Children.

“It should come from the World Food Program but we don’t know when we’ll get it,” he said of aid. Save the Children intends to distribute 110 pounds of cereal, 30 pounds of vegetables and more than a gallon of cooking oil to each family with a malnourished child.

It may take days for truckloads of goods to travel the landlocked country, which has less than 600 miles of paved roads and no railways.

Carroll on Friday pledged an additional $6.7 million from Canada to fight malnutrition and hunger in the Sahel region, including Niger. Last month, Canada contributed more than $1 million to the WFP.

Children hit hardest
The drought and locusts have left a quarter of Niger’s people confronted with severe hunger. Hardest hit are the children: Some 800,000 children under age 5 are suffering from hunger, including 150,000 facing severe malnutrition.

The country has the second-highest under 5 mortality rate in the world — one child in four dies in Niger before age 5.

“Children should not die like that in this century, where we have all the resources and technology to save them,” UNICEF’s Salah said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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