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Crisis in Niger

An infestation of locusts that decimated crops, the worst drought in 15 years, and Niger's government keeping grain prices too high for too long have now caused a region in the brink of a crisis.

Worst of all, the world wasn't paying attention, or donating much money.

It was a crisis-in-the-making that should have been averted, says Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to the U.N. secretary-general. "What is happening was largely foreseeable as early as November," he says.

But despite appeals for donations then, the Asian tsunami and then the violence-plagued famine in the Darfur region of Sudan diverted attention from Niger.

“We do find it hard to deal with more than one crisis,” says Malloch Brown.

In fact, it wasn't until British television aired reports last month that Niger was seen as a place in desperate need. Now, a crisis that could have been treated last year for about a dollar for each person in need will now cost eight times that much, and perhaps thousands of lives.

Death by hunger
Dominic MacSorley, a veteran aid worker with Concern Worldwide, says fully half the children surveyed are at risk of starvation.

"Is it famine?  Is it not famine? What's actually happening is there are 2 1/2 million people in Niger who are severely hungry,"  says MacSorley.

Easier to help
In a country that's not at war and has no problems of access, people are hungry to the point of death because help simply didn't get there quickly.

"It's one of the easier countries [to help]. It's one of the countries that we shouldn't have let slip," says MacSorley.

To keep Niger from slipping again, aid groups are developing health, water and food for work programs to build up the community's resilience and resistance to having another crisis.

But the focus right now is to get enough food to enough people fast to prevent starvation deaths on a massive scale.