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Jasmine Whitbread
Jasmine Whitbread
Jasmine Whitbread is the CEO of Save the Children International.
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Davos is a world apart from Niger's food crisis
The people of Niger desperately need help and, as humanitarians, we all must act now to avert disaster.
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2012 17:26
It would have cost US$1 per day to prevent acute malnutrition among children in the Sahel in 2004, but by 2005, the cost of saving a malnourished child’s life increased to US$80 per day [GALLO/GETTY]

Davos, Switzerland - It's cold in Davos; the temperature is hovering around -5°C during the day. It's sometimes hard to remember that a continent away in Niger it is as much as 40 degrees hotter. There are other differences too: here in Davos, the world's political, economic and business elite are clamouring to have their opinions heard - and the world's media is here to listen. In Niger, they are trying to tell us something too. But nobody is listening.

What we cannot forget is that the problems in the Global North are inextricably linked with those in the South. Almost 60 per cent of African exports go to the US and Europe, two of the regions worst hit by the economic crisis. Reduced aid budgets in developed countries, rising oil prices and declining trade decrease poor countries' abilities to prepare for and offset against future disasters, such as the one we saw in East Africa in 2011.

A drought looms in Niger. The alarm bells are already going off. A recent assessment shows families in the worst hit areas are already struggling with around one third less food and money than is necessary to survive the year. Millions of people are threatened by this food crisis.

For countries such as Niger, which have to import a lot of food to feed their populations, a global rise in food prices can have a life and death impact. Already, crops are falling way below expectations, due to poor rains.

In Ethiopia this week, African heads of state have also been meeting to improve how trade works for development and to tackle the continent's vulnerability to hunger crises. That African states must be better prepared for humanitarian disasters is a given, but we in the international community must commit to help them.

In East Africa, the aid response did not kick-in or scale-up quickly enough to match the rapidly deteriorating situation. Many donors wanted proof that a humanitarian catastrophe was happening before acting to prevent one. Similarly, the media didn't respond until the problems were manifest. This crisis was predicted, but not prevented. We must change the system and commit to change now - so this does not happen again and again.

This makes sense from an economic point of view as well as a humanitarian one. Jan Egeland, former chief humanitarian at the UN, famously said that it would have cost $1 per day to prevent acute malnutrition among children in the Sahel in 2004, but by 2005, the cost of saving a malnourished child's life was $80 per day.

That the Davos and African Union summits happened in the same week should underline the fact that our goals need to be aligned further. It is not just people in the African Union who have an interest in preventing hunger crises.

This is the motivation behind the Charter to End Hunger, a global call to action written by leading international aid agencies, asserting the need to step up efforts to confront the humanitarian and political challenges. The charter shows that we need to be better at preventing these disasters from happening in the first place, and contains a five-point plan to prevent future hunger crises from being allowed to develop. Donor governments must come through earlier with flexible funding before crises get out of hand. National governments in countries where disasters happen also need to make early emergency declarations to enable early response.

The charter has already been signed by many international luminaries, including the Prime Minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga, and Valerie Amos, the UN's head of humanitarian affairs. Other leaders should commit to endorse the charter and show that the world will not tolerate the continuing cycle of crisis-response-crisis.

This year, it is the people of Niger who desperately need our help. As humanitarians, we must act now to avert disaster. As pragmatists, we know that to respond now will save us money, as well as lives.

Jasmine Whitbread is the CEO of Save the Children International.

Follow her on Twitter: @JasmineatSC 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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