Free Market Famine

October 26, 2006
Foreign Policy In Focus

Frederic Mousseau and Anuradha Mittal. Edited by John Feffer

Niger is the poorest country in the world. Neither humanitarian aid nor free-market reforms prevented its 2005 food crisis.

In the summer of 2005, the world rocked to Live Aid concerts, and the Make Poverty History Movement celebrated developed countries’ fresh commitments toward the International Development Goals (IDG), development assistance, and debt cancellation at the G8 summit in Gleneagles.

Some three thousands miles south of this euphoria, a nation witnessed thousands of its children die of hunger. This was summer 2005 in Niger, the poorest country in the world.

Niger is a land-locked country in Central West Africa. With an estimated population of 12.4 million (in 2005) largely concentrated in a narrow band of arable land along its southern border, Niger transitioned to a democratically elected government in 1999, following almost a decade of political instability. Rural subsistence agriculture, livestock, uranium-mining, and informal trading activities dominate Niger’s economy. Rainfed agriculture contributed 40% to Niger’s GDP in 2005, while livestock production accounts for about one-third of the country’s value-added sector.

A vast but poor country, Niger ranked last out of 177 countries on the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index in 2005. Sixty-three percent of Niger’s population lives on less than a dollar a day, and the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was $280 in 2005. Social indicators are low: the infant mortality rate is 151.8 per 1,000, life expectancy is 44.7 years, the literacy rate is 17%, and gross primary school enrollment is 52.4%. Even when harvests are good, a shocking 40% of children—one million—suffer from chronic malnutrition, and Niger’s under-five mortality rate is the second highest in the world. A September 2005 nutritional survey conducted by UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the government of Niger confirmed that 15.3% of children under five years of age suffer from acute malnutrition.

Niger’s poverty and widespread hunger hit the world news in 2005 with the terrible food crisis that affected millions of people and led to widespread child malnutrition. Between January and October 2005, relief organizations treated some 230,000 children under the age of five, including 60,000 who were severely malnourished—surpassing past records of relief intervention. Despite this large-scale effort, thousands of children died of hunger-related causes.