Issue 33 - Article 9

The 2005 Niger food crisis: a strategic approach to tackling human needs

April 19, 2006

The crisis in Niger in 2005 was characterised by slow decision-making and a lack of complementarity between humanitarian and development actors, as agencies debated whether short-term emergency interventions or long-term structural responses were most appropriate. This article describes the nature of the crisis, and argues that, if similar crises are to be prevented in the future, humanitarian and developmental agencies need to harmonise the way they work together to prevent, mitigate and reduce the risks faced by chronically vulnerable populations.

Profile of the crisis

The food crisis in Niger primarily affected people living in the country’s transitional zone.

Food production records for 2005 show a cereal shortfall of 9%, or 250,000 tonnes. Taking local price inflation into account, the final shortage increases to 16% due to the degradation of purchasing capacity, especially among agro-pastoral populations. Although this further reduced food availability, it does not explain the magnitude of the crisis. Over the previous five years there were worse harvests than 2005’s, but none had as significant an impact on food security or people’s nutritional status.

Why was the 2005 crisis so severe, and why were measures not taken to prevent or mitigate its impact? First, it is crucial to recognise that the populations affected by the crisis included agro-pastoral communities (Tahoua, Zinder) isolated from trading networks, and communities highly dependent on cereal trader (Maradi and Tillaberry), especially near the Nigerian border. Weak social and economic structures underpinned the vulnerability of these groups:

  • The livelihood activities of the communities affected by the crisis – seasonal cereal farming, livestock breeding, small contra-seasonal farming, spice-growing – are dependent on weather conditions, and production is varied.
  • Niger’s cereal market is strictly controlled by a restricted group of traders. These traders keep cereals out of circulation until the maximum price is reached.
  • Niger’s trade dynamics are dominated by Nigerian markets, which are much more active, have much higher purchasing capacity and attract commodities that would otherwise be sold in Niger.
  • The rural communities affected by the crisis are particularly fractured and lack civil society structures. They also have extremely weak capacity to defend their interests in the face of political powers and against the interests of private lobbies, such as traders.
  • State institutions are weak in certain parts of the country (rural areas of the central and northern regions) and in certain sectors (the regulation of the cereal market, public health and food security surveillance).

In addition to these structural factors, specific characteristics related to the 2004–2005 season are also important:

  • Scarce rainfall during the 2004 winter caused an early increase in cereal prices (in February–March 2005). Governments in Nigeria and Burkina Faso implemented protectionist measures leading to the closure of borders, which significantly reduced the flow of cereals back into Niger during the inter-crop season. This was compounded by the speculative practices of traders, which led to a record price of 36,000 FCFA (about 54 euros) per 100kg of millet.
  • The 2004 drought reduced community and family food stocks, as well as available fodder for livestock in the transitional areas. This reduced the weight and quality of the livestock, and so lowered its commercial value in the local markets.

Another key factor in the crisis was the way information was managed, and how decisions were taken. In terms of information management, it is true that the food production shortage was detected quite early (by December 2004), but the way the shortage was interpreted caused confusion as to the appropriate response. Livestock prices were not analysed in relation to increases in cereal prices. This created a false impression, since the degradation of people’s purchasing capacity was based on the decapitalisation of livestock as well as inflated cereal prices. Thus, responses to price rises, such as subsidised cereal sales, were only tackling part of the problem.

Another gap in information management and analysis was the lack of nutritional surveillance data. This deprived early-warning systems of an alert indicator of food insecurity, and thus the ability to identify areas that were extremely affected. The fact that nutritional data is not collected as an epidemic indicator as part of the public health system and is not integrated with food security data meant that the most vulnerable populations could not be identified before the onset of the crisis.

Harmonising humanitarian and development aid

There is a consensus that food crises stem from a combustible mix of political, economic and social factors, ignited by hazardous climatic conditions. It is also commonly understood that, while carrying out reforms to address structural weaknesses, it is essential to guarantee that people’s basic needs are met. In Niger this balance between structural change and immediate relief is particularly pertinent, especially as the 2006 harvest is not due until September, and is to some degree already at risk due to livestock and grain decapitalisation and increasing debts from inter-crop purchasing.

In responding to the ongoing situation in Niger, humanitarian and development actors need to stop debating whether it is better to implement urgent or long-term measures, and instead work together in a complementary way. If we are going to harmonise responses and cope with future food crises we need to focus on three levels: prevention/preparation, mitigation and risk reduction.


To ensure that another crisis like the one that took place in Niger in 2005 does not happen again, it is extremely important that early-warning systems are made more sophisticated. This entails introducing an integrated approach to data collection and analysis, which would incorporate epidemiological and nutritional data into regular surveillance. Collecting nutritional data would enable humanitarian and development actors to detect crises in their early stages. The National Food Security network in Niger needs to refine the way it collects data, to include information on food security, climate and public health, and effectively communicate that data to donors, international agencies and the media. Data collection could be refined through the use of tools such as a Geographic Information System (GIS). Decision-making mechanisms within the National Food Security Network must be independent of political or economic pressure. If a crisis is detected, there should be an immediate appeal and response, based strictly on needs and technical criteria to define the type, nature and target population of the response.

It is essential that community structures and humanitarian agencies present in the field are involved in data collection, and that information is fed back to them. Collaboration between civil society and public structures is essential for strengthening data collection capacity, and to ensure that the correct use is made of that data. Involving civil society structures – such as community social or economic initiatives or traditional management structures like councils of elders – would also increase awareness of a crisis, and enable responses to be directed through existing initiatives. It would also improve accountability.


Mitigation should consider more than simply saving lives during the acute phase of the crisis. We need to approach the problem of chronic vulnerability as a social and economic problem. We must extend the humanitarian mandate to include supporting affected populations by implementing transitional activities that build sustainable livelihoods and reduce risk.

In this sense, nutritional support to the extremely vulnerable (malnourished children under five or severely affected adults) should include continued therapeutic feeding until rates of acute malnutrition return to acceptable standards (less than 1% severe and 10% global). Supplementary feeding should also be maintained for vulnerable populations affected by global acute malnutrition (which is an indicator that a household is under severe food stress). A third nutritional treatment, home treatment, should be maintained for severe cases with associated problems. In addition, there should be regular monitoring of the nutritional situation. Primary Health Units are the most suitable way to gather this information.

In areas such as Mayahi and Keita, levels of acute malnutrition reach emergency levels every inter-crop season. It is therefore necessary to include nutritional treatment in epidemiological programmes within national public health policy. A permanent adapted nutritional detection, referral and treatment system is needed. The government’s recent adoption of a National Nutritional Treatment Protocol should help here.

The nutritional recovery of the most affected individuals is only one step in protecting households from extreme vulnerability. The high level of debt that farmers have taken on to cope with the inter-crop season and the low prices paid by traders are further increasing household vulnerability. A food security survey by Acción contra el Hambre in October 2005 indicated that the average household in the transitional zone would run out of grain reserves by December 2005 (earlier than in the 2004–2005 season), jeopardising the 2006 season from the very beginning.

Thus, in 2006 there is a need for qualitative targeting of the most affected families so that those at risk of death (absolutely deprived families) and those without the capacity to re-establish their food security in an autonomous way (families affected by decapitalisation, indebtedness or forced migration) are targeted with food aid and economic support respectively. This also requires national public institutions and international organisations to target food aid appropriately and proportionately to those in need. These actors should avoid general approaches that do not fit the specific characteristics of each specific population group, and which might have perverse effects on others not affected by the crisis. The general food distribution in August, September and October 2005, for example, contributed to a reduction in the price of millet for farmers in Niger’s humid zones.

Risk reduction

In addition to prevention and mitigation, food security strategies at the household level need to be enhanced through nutritional education and food management training to improve how households use the resources that are available. Nutritional problems are partly due to a lack of proper food stock management, with households selling the harvest quickly (at low prices), and buying at a higher price during the food gap. Support needs to be provided for the diversification of income generation, so that people become less vulnerable to climatic hazards. Supporting income generating activities like trading, food processing, gardening and livestock breeding was one factor in enabling people to protect themselves against the effects of the crisis in 2005.

Weak organisation and cohesion within Niger society also increases the vulnerability of populations to the negative consequences of natural disasters, market forces and/or political decisions (or indecision). Supporting civil society structures will be key to strengthening people’s capacity to defend their interests. The policy of decentralised administration adopted by the government offers a way of supporting dialogue and collaboration between civil structures and public institutions. The role of the international community as animator, material supporter and sometimes facilitator is crucial. Issues such as the structure of the cereal market in Niger will need input from public and private actors, and people themselves must have a say.


Just because the Niger crisis is no longer on our TV screens does not make the current situation any less precarious. Nutritional surveys continue to show severe infant malnutrition rates, especially in the transitional zone despite the general food distribution in August–October 2005.

The government and the international community should not to wait until we have spectacular indicators to act. In January and February 2005, we had indicators showing that something was going wrong, and we failed to respond. The situation is similar now, and we must not make the same mistake. Emergencies should not be seen as inevitable. Humanitarian and development actors can work together to address structural and immediate vulnerabilities, so as to ensure that communities do not suffer one crisis after another.

Manuel Sánchez-Montero is with Acción contra el Hambre, Madrid.


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