Niger's food emergency has reached the world's headlines, but the crisis there is only one part of a much larger disaster. On an extended trip this summer through rural areas of Asia, the Middle East and Africa on behalf of the UN, I visited countless villages afflicted with extreme hunger and struggling to survive against the odds.
The villages that I visited -- in Tajikistan, Yemen, Mali, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Malawi, Cambodia and elsewhere -- reflect the condition of hundreds of millions of impoverished people worldwide. Whether caused by drought, exhausted soils, locusts or lack of high-yield seeds, the results were the same: desperation, disease and death. Incredibly, the actions of the richest countries -- which promised solidarity with the world's poorest people at the G8 Summit in July -- have intensified the hunger crisis. Even today, donor governments' aid efforts are poorly directed. They respond to hunger emergencies such as Niger's with food relief, but fail to help with long-lasting solutions.
The expanding hunger crisis reflects a lethal combination of growing rural populations and inadequate food yields. Rural populations are growing because poor farm households choose to have many children, who work as farmhands and serve as social security for their parents. This intensifies poverty in the next generation, as average farm sizes shrink.
Food yields per hectare are inadequate because impoverished farm households lack some or all of the four inputs needed for modern and productive agriculture: soil-nutrient replenishment (through organic and chemical fertilizers), irrigation or other water-management techniques, improved seed varieties and sound agricultural advice.
The problem is especially severe in landlocked countries like Mali, Niger, Rwanda and Malawi, where high transport costs leave villages isolated from markets and in regions that depend on rainfall rather than river-based irrigation. Yields, on average, barely support survival and crop failures are common and deadly, while long-term global climate change, caused mainly by high energy consumption in the rich countries, may be exacerbating the frequency and severity of droughts.
These impoverished villages need financial help to buy vital inputs for farming and to invest in basic infrastructure such as roads and electrification. Instead, donor governments and the World Bank have insisted for years that impoverished countries cut financing to these villages, under the guise of promoting "macroeconomic stability" -- a polite way of demanding debt repayment -- and reflecting the ideological delusion that the private sector will step in. Instead, these policies have left hundreds of millions of people even more desperately poor and hungry and even more vulnerable to drought, pests and soil depletion.
Millions die each year, either of outright starvation or from infectious diseases that their weakened bodies cannot withstand. And still, after 20 years of preaching that private markets would pick up the slack, these impoverished communities are further away than ever from using improved seeds, fertilizers and small-scale water management technologies.
The irony is that donors then respond with very expensive emergency food aid, which typically proves to be too little and too late. A shipment of an equivalent dollar amount of fertilizer and improved seeds from, say, the US to Africa would yield perhaps five times more food. But donors have not yet implemented this obvious and basic lesson.