The current food crisis in Niger is the clearest indictment of the “deal for Africa” agreed by the G8 last month. The deal continues to push the very neo-liberal reforms that are responsible for the unfolding disaster.
The scale of the crisis is huge. Of the 3.6 million people who live in the affected region, more than 900,000 urgently need food aid to survive.
However, Niger is not suffering from a lack of food. One commentator reported last week that “there are piles of onions, bundles of spinach” in Niger. Yet a few minutes drive away, “aid workers coax babies with spidery limbs to take sips of milk”.
This is the true face of contemporary famine — starvation amid plenty.
Under the guidance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the price of grain has shot up. The government was given strict instructions not to interfere in the “natural” processes of the market.
The consequence of all these policies is that Niger’s staple food, millet, has more than doubled in price in the last year.
Despite experts blaming the food crisis on plagues of locusts, the Famine Early Warning System Network, a US-based non-governmental organisation, has said these factors only had a “modest impact” on the harvest. This year’s grain production was only 11 percent less than the average over the past five years.
Prices have rocketed because traders have been exporting food to neighbouring countries where they can get higher prices.
The government ignored early warnings of a looming food crisis and refused to intervene. Intervention, they feared, would result in the country being refused further debt relief by the G8 countries.
Niger comes second to last on the UN Human Development Index. Yet the country has recently been lauded for its commitment to free market reforms, and has been held up as a model for poverty reduction in the region.
So wedded has the government been to free market reforms it has refused to distribute food free to those affected by the famine. The government’s subsidised millet is still beyond the reach of the poorest people affected by the crisis.
At the same time as the G8 was meeting in Scotland last month, thousands of protesters marched in Niamey, Niger’s capital, insisting that the government make food available to the poor.
Only in the last few weeks have the government and foreign donor countries grudgingly agreed to distribute food.
The World Food Programme (WFP), a UN agency, has been infected by the same belief in market-led solutions.
Earlier in the year the WFP shockingly refused to hand out free food, fearing that the interference in Niger’s free market would sabotage the country’s development strategy.
The neo-liberal policies imposed upon Niger have not come out of the blue. It was one of the first countries to introduce a structural adjustment programme in the early 1980s.
This programme was the condition attached to loans granted by the World Bank and IMF. These insisted on the liberalisation of the country’s economy.
Twenty years later the country benefited from the Enhanced Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative, which gave debt relief on the condition of further economic reforms.
These reforms included the privatisation of key government enterprises, especially electricity and petroleum companies.
As a direct consequence of these reforms the population is today poorer than it was at independence in 1958.
The country is still dependent on a handful of primary export products, while 90 percent of the workforce scratch out a living farming and cattle rearing.
More than 20 years of free market reforms and the current “poverty reduction” initiatives celebrated by the G8 — these are the real authors of the current misery in Niger.
Leo Zeilig is the editor of the collection Class Struggle and Resistance in Africa