The humanitarian–development debate and chronic vulnerability: lessons from Niger
by Vanessa Rubin, CARE International UK April 2006

In July 2005, images of malnourished and starving children in Niger were beamed across the world, triggering a massive relief response. Despite initial warnings nine months earlier, an estimated 3.6 million people were affected by food shortages. CARE International – which has been implementing relief and development programmes in Niger for 30 years – was one of many NGOs that sought to respond.

With the largest capacity of all international NGOs in Niger, CARE’s contribution was significant; the agency distributed 44% of all the food supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP), provided additional emergency food supplies to 400 villages; and established three community-based nutritional recuperation programmes for moderately malnourished children. Now, with the threat of food shortages looming once again, a retrospective look at last year’s emergency response has enabled CARE to identify a number of important lessons.

Emergency – or chronic poverty?

In November 2005, CARE carried out a round of nutritional screening at its distribution sites in Diffa, Tahoua and Maradi regions. This revealed that 32% of children aged between six and 59 months were either moderately or severely malnourished. There is no doubt that these statistics reflect a year of heightened widespread malnutrition, but there was confusion over whether this was an ‘emergency’, or simply part of the chronic poverty and malnutrition that have come to characterise Niger, the world’s poorest state. Although the extent and scale of malnutrition were unusual, the occurrence of malnutrition was not. As one staff member of CARE’s relief operation in Maradi explained, ‘The pictures that the world saw this year could have been taken any year. There are people who starve every year because malnutrition is a part of life in Niger’.

CARE, Save the Children, World Vision and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) commissioned a joint evaluation immediately following the acute phase of the crisis. The evaluation, produced in November 2005, concluded that Niger was experiencing an emergency, and that this emergency should be understood as the acute phase of a chronic crisis. In other words, it was a severe episode in a long-term endemic food crisis. Many agencies expected the number of children being admitted into nutritional rehabilitation centres to decline after November’s harvest, but this has not been the case – a clear indication that malnutrition in Niger is indeed chronic.

The joint evaluation argues that the 2005 food crisis can be separated into two components:

  • the acute and immediate emergency caused by localised crop failures and regional food deficits; and
  • the long-term crisis – what Mark Duffield calls the ‘permanent emergency’ – of chronic malnutrition, widespread livestock and asset depletion and the high incidence of communicable and waterborne diseases, all of which are closely linked.

These two emergencies – long-term and immediate – should be treated as equally important. Both demand a response, and it should not be assumed that addressing one will resolve the other.

Developmental relief

A long-term crisis by definition erodes the traditional boundaries that separate emergency relief and developmental programming. The crisis in Niger demonstrated the limitations – conceptual, institutional, financial, cultural and programmatic – of the dichotomy between these two forms of aid.

The appeal launched by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in May 2005 was not supported by the international donor community (donors still considered the issue to be a matter for development funds). This may have betrayed a lack of donor confidence in the capacity of the various actors to deliver effective assistance, or an inability to shift aid funding appropriately between relief and development approaches. Either way, the failure of the appeal has pointed to a need for donors, UN agencies and NGOs to engage in timely dialogue to reach consensus (or at least common ground) about how to respond. No action is not good enough. There is a clear need for donors to support governments and agencies in developing more sophisticated, nuanced and timely responses to critical situations, so that chronically vulnerable people do not fall between the two stools of development and humanitarian funding.

CARE submitted proposals for crisis prevention and mitigation measures to a range of donors as early as October 2004. All of these were unsuccessful because, we were told, donor funds were being channelled through the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). Overshadowed by other emergencies around the world, the Niger crisis did not receive the attention it needed. The situation was not considered serious enough to merit an emergency response until media images and nutritional reports registered deaths and escalating numbers of cases of severe malnutrition, nearly nine months later. This, the evaluation argues, was too late in the case of acute malnutrition – and, in the case of chronic malnutrition, a decade too late.

The crisis clearly exposed problems with the early-warning systems used to monitor levels of vulnerability within the population, highlighting again the need to incorporate pre-emptive developmental approaches into relief responses. The government of Niger provided the most widespread data available on vulnerability, but this was based only on local food supplies and ignored other crucial indicators, particularly those focusing on broader livelihoods. The multi-agency evaluation specifically suggests that Niger’s early-warning systems are too narrowly focused on agricultural production, and recommends their expansion to include milk yields (not least due to the clear link between these and infant malnutrition) and income from livestock. In addition, systems did not account for the impact of border closures by neighbouring countries, caused by, among other things, the locust invasion, and the subsequent effect on food prices. As such, early-warning systems could not register the fact that, while food was available, escalating prices put it beyond the reach of the majority of vulnerable people.

By recognising the interplay between development indicators and emergency responses, it should be possible to improve Niger’s early-warning system so that it is better equipped to detect and respond to both chronic and acute vulnerability. Had this information been available in 2005, the government may have decided to intervene immediately with free food distributions, rather than starting with subsidised food sales. CARE is working with the government of Niger to invest in expanding early-warning systems to take these factors into account, particularly with a view to advocating for appropriate responses from the international community.

The nexus between relief and development can also be highly effective in post-emergency recovery activities that seek to rebuild livelihoods. In Niger, CARE’s cash-for-work schemes, community grain bank and livestock reproduction activities provide people with an income to meet immediate food needs, while also enabling them to replenish lost assets and build up their long-term financial and nutritional security.

Relief-focused development

In the same way that relief efforts should incorporate developmental principles, so too development programmes should seek to increase their beneficiaries’ capacity to respond to future emergencies. Anecdotal evidence indicates that households engaged in CARE programmes that seek to increase year-round food security and protect household assets are better able to mitigate the effects of food shortages than households where no such intervention exists. CARE is now working to ‘mainstream’ nutrition and vulnerability monitoring across all of its development programmes in Niger, and ensure that they are contributing to the overriding goal of improving food security and quality of life. This will require careful revision of CARE’s country strategy and heavy investment in staff training in areas such as nutrition, vulnerability assessment and disaster preparedness and management.

It is also important to recognise that, when a situation moves into an acute emergency phase, a specific response is required. In CARE’s case, the need to manage the emergency, recovery and ongoing development activities concurrently placed a huge strain on capacity. This has highlighted the need to develop appropriate alternative emergency responses, implementation plans and management tools. CARE is therefore preparing to undertake extensive disaster management and preparedness training to avoid some of the pitfalls of 2005 should another emergency situation develop. These pitfalls include limited training of staff in nutritional recuperation; a lack of preparedness for the psychological impact of the emergency on staff; an uncertain advocacy strategy for the emergency response; and a lack of preparedness for the vast media interest in the emergency. These observations are also valuable in the context of a wider CARE International review of disaster preparedness.

A false dichotomy

While last year’s harvests in Niger were largely good, the accumulation of debt, loss of assets and mortgaging of crops mean that household vulnerability is high. For many communities, another food crisis is a very real possibility in the coming year. Without aid, an estimated 60% of households are set to start running out of food around April or May, and the next harvest is not expected until October. If the international community steps in now, there is a window of opportunity to prevent the recurrence of an emergency on the scale of 2005. If we do not act, the cost will be felt in both human lives and in the financial cost of mounting a full-scale relief operation. There is therefore a clear need for the humanitarian community to move beyond rhetoric and to make tangible changes based on the lessons of 2005. Change is needed both in Niger and more widely.

Ten million people across Southern Africa are currently hungry and at risk of starvation – again, because of widespread structural poverty and a lack of government capacity to respond, plus the added crisis of HIV/AIDS. As with Niger, the Southern African food crisis is compounded – not caused – by a poor harvest and a regional food deficit. It is critical that all actors, including agencies, governments, donors and the media, incorporate this understanding into their response.

The rapid-onset emergency in Niger was preventable by the international humanitarian community through a better and more timely response to the slow-onset crisis. Relief responses must take into account developmental principles, indicators and practices; in turn, development programmes must build capacity to cope with an emergency and reduce the likelihood of subsequent emergencies, particularly when, as with hindsight we can see in Niger, they are both predictable and preventable.

Vanessa Rubin is Southern & West Africa Programme Officer, CARE International UK. Her email address is For general information on the Niger crisis, see