UN Food Distributions in Niger Not Reaching Those With Greatest Needs

Médecins Sans Frontières Appeals to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today that recently begun food distributions in Niger are not reaching those with the greatest needs, especially children under five years of age in the worst-affected areas. MSF calls on United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Annan to take measures to ensure that UN agencies like the World Food Program (WFP) and UNICEF distribute aid according to the real needs of people.

To date, the distributions undertaken by the WFP fall short, in quantity and quality, in responding to the gravity of the current epidemic of acute malnutrition encountered by MSF medical teams in the region. The targeting of areas for distribution is based on an early-warning system that monitors harvests, and does not take into account the actual nutritional needs of a population. Since November 2004, this method has proven ineffective.

Since January 2005, MSF has admitted more than 21,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition into therapeutic nutritional programs in Tahoua, Maradi, and Zinder provinces. More than 12,000 of these children live in three departments in the south of Maradi province, where the nutritional situation continues to worsen. Between August 8 and 14, MSF admitted 1,053 children for emergency nutritional treatment from this region alone - an alarming increase from the first week of July, when 403 children were admitted. The WFP, though, only expects to distribute food rations to 110,000 people, or barely 10% of the area's 1.2 million people.

MSF also warns that the food being distributed is not adapted for young children or infants, who are the principal victims of the current epidemic of malnutrition in Niger. To cure malnutrition, children and infants require specialized food like enriched flour, which is not present in the rations distributed by the WFP.

The UN was slow to react to the current epidemic of acute malnutrition in Niger, and its response continues to be inadequate. The organization blamed the nutritional crisis on drought and an invasion of locusts, and in November 2004 supported the Nigerian government's decision to only respond to the emergency by only offering subsidized food aid. The most deprived Nigerians, or those in greatest need, had no access to assistance.

MSF calls on UN agencies to honor the humanitarian principle of impartiality, which requires the provision of assistance based solely on need, and further calls for food distributions that will support MSF's work with children suffering from acute malnutrition in regions where they are dying of hunger.

MSF has been running a programme to treat severe malnutrition since 2001 in Maradi region. With the alarming increase in admission since January 2005, new therapeutic feeding centres and more ambulatory activities have been open as of April in the Maradi, Tahoua, Zinder and Diffa province.

Today, 125 MSF international volunteers and more than 700 Nigerian staff provide emergency nutritional assistance to severely malnourished children; actively screen children and provide supplementary food to moderately malnourished children as well as food for their families in Niger.