The age of austerity in Niger

By Pascale Palmer
July 6, 2010

In Niger in West Africa, there's a crisis going on. The usual lean season has been massively exacerbated by poor rains, poor harvests and a hike in food prices. The World Food Programme is doubling the number of people receiving food assistance in order to protect an estimated 400,000 children at risk of starvation.

It's a tough time for British people to be asked to look beyond their own family circumstances. The Cam-Clegg coalition is cutting us astonishingly deep at home, and the real pain might not kick in until the winter. And I don't want it to always be the aid agency mantra to say, "You might have it bad, but look at those poor devils in x, y and z" - we all know it and we don't always want to be told it, especially when we have troubles enough of our own.

So let me give it to you from a personal point of view. The decisions the new government are making, they believe, will bring us out of this financial crisis with a leaner, more resilient economy with the flexibility to sway in the face of global market shunts, but with less likelihood of breaking. I think, at the moment, the majority of people are behind the cuts because they don't think they are part of them. But they are: we all are. It looks likely that jobs will go, middle-incomers will be stung on tax, welfare will shrink and a slew of knock-on effects will hurt small business, pensions and infrastructure improvement.

And that's nothing to the consequences milling round the head of Daily Mail columnist Peter Osborne - who foretells the "resurgence of violent far-right parties across the globe" and suggests the effects of the new age of austerity played out by Europe, the UK and the US "will be far more profound and destabilising than the 9/11 atrocity". There's nothing like a bit of objective comment - and this is nothing like a bit of objective comment.

But while the Daily Mail continues to whip up a hurricane, when we should all be preparing for a storm, really, really bad stuff is happening in Niger. The apocalyptic tones of Peter Osborne are more appropriate to a country that (along with its neighbours touching the Sahel) is suffering basic lack of food. Just about 17 per cent of children under five in Niger have acute malnutrition. In some areas, where the drought has hit hardest, one in five children in this age group is malnourished. The WHO considers anything over 15 per cent to be an emergency.

In my mind, part of what got us into our own financial mess in the first place, was the decoupling of the responsibility on the haves to look to the needs of the have-nots. It was the acceptability of greed on every level - whether in the powerful minority of mega-rich folk, or people like you and me thinking that owning 20 pairs of shoes should only raise a smile. So if we're about changing the business-as-usual model to something that really works, we need to change the way individuals think, in tandem with the processes of financial structures.

The next years may well see more homeless people on our streets, more old folk in need of warmth in the winter, more people out of work who are worrying about how to afford the new uniforms and books for school. And all these people will need a helping hand - from family, from neighbours and from the community at large.

So while we brace for austerity, perhaps it is the perfect time for many of us to re-embrace our responsibility to those who have less and least. Even in the toughest times, I can certainly find 50p for the Niger pot - and that will buy an adult a couple of meals; push it up to 80p and one baby will get a sachet of high-nutrition emergency food.

It's not about guilt or feeling sorry for anyone, in the UK or Niger. It's about doing what humans should do - looking after one another, especially in the hardest of times.


(c) Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's Advocacy Media Officer.

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