Life in the West African country of Niger is hard in the best of times. Now the country is facing a food crisis that threatens hundreds of thousands of lives. A combination of factors — nature, misguided policies, and neglect — has left Niger teetering on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, and the world is struggling to respond.

Niger is one of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly two-thirds of its 12 million citizens live on less than $1 a day. It has the world’s second-highest mortality rate for children under the age of under 5: 25 percent will die before that birthday. Feeding all its citizens is always difficult, as less than 4 percent of Niger’s land is considered arable. Droughts are common and the current one is the worst in 15 years. Locust outbreaks occur too frequently; last year’s swarm was particularly bad.

The result has been a food crisis that has left nearly one-quarter of Niger’s population severely hungry. As usual, children have been hardest hit. Some 800,000 children under the age of 5 suffer from hunger; by one estimate, 150,000 face severe malnutrition. International aid groups are trying to feed some 2.5 million people, but they do not have the resources. The U.N. World Food Program’s current goal is to help the 40,000 people thought to be most vulnerable.

Medical officials warn that the weakened population is more vulnerable to diseases such as cholera. There are no official reports on the incidence of the disease, but aid groups note that numerous cases have already appeared and the death rate is unusually high — proof that the famine is producing secondary hazards. Experts warn that the rainy season will provide some relief, but it too is a mixed blessing. Rainfall also helps spread malaria and other diseases that flourish in the unsanitary conditions found in Niger.

Nature does not deserve all the blame, however. The government of Niger raised taxes on staple foods last year to fund other programs such as health and education. The price increase had a devastating effect on the already impoverished country. Subsequent shortages pushed the prices of many staples beyond that which most citizens can afford. Then, when the scale of the hunger problem became evident, the government subsidized food prices — rather than distribute free food — out of fear of hurting local markets. The result is a crisis that is once again producing horrific images of famished children, overwhelmed aid agencies and desperate appeals for assistance. The world has been slow to respond.

Last week, the United Nations appealed for $80 million to fight the hunger. Donors have already contributed or committed $25.4 million, but the rainy season makes transportation — already difficult in a country the size of Texas with only 960 kilometers of paved roads — nearly impossible. And there is no alternative to getting food to the hungry, most of whom live in the countryside and are too weak to walk to urban distribution centers.

This ad hoc approach is clearly unsatisfactory. Aid officials have pointed out that it was clear late last year that a crisis was in the making, but getting the world to respond was nearly impossible. The Asian tsunami and the crisis in Sudan were international priorities; the situation in Niger was allowed to deteriorate.

The Group of Eight summit held in Gleneagles, Scotland, last month highlighted Africa’s plight and promised to double aid to Africa. Pledging and providing funds are two separate things, though, and the developed world’s record to date is a dreadful one. Establishing a more long-term, permanent mechanism for aid to Africa is a critical first step: Waiting for crises will ensure that desperately needed help is delayed. News that Oxfam and the British government will push to establish a $1 billion U.N. emergency reserve fund in September is long overdue.

Just as important, however, are changes in the international economy that would afford the poorest countries greater access to markets. Aid is only a Band-Aid. Far more significant and effective are measures that give less developed countries the means to achieve greater prosperity. Only then can they feed their own citizens.

This underscores the importance of the Doha Round of international trade negotiations. This round was supposed to focus on the needs of developing countries. That has proven especially difficult as they need greater access to developed countries’ agricultural markets, which are protected. Yet the situation in Niger, which is part of a larger crisis in several West African countries, is proof — once again — that the failure to reform exacts a horrific toll on the weakest and most vulnerable.

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