WASHINGTON, September 1, 2011—Over the past 50 years, Niger—a mineral-rich, low-income country on the southern edge of the Sahara desert—has faced extended periods of drought, frequent food shortages, and some of the most difficult human development challenges in the world.
“It takes extreme drought to make headlines, but the reality is that nearly a quarter of the population of Niger faces chronic food insecurity in any given year,” said Ousmane Diagana, World Bank Country Director for Niger. “Poverty and hunger are part of the landscape here during years of normal harvest, and things simply get worse with harsh climate or other shocks.”
A chronically food-insecure person is expected to survive on less than 1,800 kcal a day. In 2006, data showed that over 70 percent of daily caloric Nigerien’s consumption came from cereals (millet, sorghum and other cereals). Less than five percent of daily caloric consumption was derived from meat and fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables, which are important sources of micronutrients, such as iron, iodine, vitamin A and calcium.
Since 1990, over 60 percent of Niger’s largely rural population has lived below the poverty line, a trend made all the more serious by rapid population growth. According to UNICEF, the rate of chronic malnutrition in 2009 was 46.3 percent while in the second and third largest cities Zinder and Maradi respectively, both located in south Niger, this rate was over 50 percent.
Half of the country’s children below the age of five suffered from chronic malnutrition, as measured by stunting (low height-for-age). The recent food crises of 2008 and 2010, due to local drought and international high prices, have exacerbated the vulnerability of the poor to food insecurity. In January this year, after civilian rule was restored in the country, measures to cope with long-running food insecurity and deep poverty began taking shape. While a strong emergency food response continues to be a priority, longer-term solutions are also being actively sought and implemented.
New safety net to cover a million people over five years
The World Bank is supporting Niger’s renewed effort to protect vulnerable households through analytical work that has helped identify effective investments and by financing a new social safety net that is expected to cover a million people over five years in the worst affected regions of the country.
With reliable assistance being made available for the poorest families, today’s infants and young children in the regions of Dosso, Maradi, Tahoua, Tillaberi, and Zinder need not be permanently weakened by malnutrition, which has serious long-term consequences, including for learning skills.
The new safety net system will provide regular transfers of approximately $20 a month over a two-year period to very poor households in a state of chronic food insecurity. The payments are made to women who are expected to attend “essential family practices” training in health, nutrition and sanitation.
Payments will be made to women through designated payment agencies, mostly microfinance institutions and mobile phone companies, and are expected to significantly improve food consumption among registered households.
Already 2500 women have been benefitting from an early pilot of the project in four departments in Tahoua and Tillaberi. Those transfers have allowed them to purchase more food and not depend on hand outs from other people in the village. In other cases some women have already started to make arrangements to start participating in local saving schemes so they can buy livestock later on.
At Foygorou, Commune Ouallam, Department of Ouallam (Tillaberi), Mrs. Hadiza Moussa said she bought a sack of millet with her allowance of the first transfer. With the second transfer, she bought clothes for her children and gave her husband 2000 francs for some other essentials.
Cash-for-work will be offered every year for a period of sixty days each year to about 15,000 people going through temporary food insecurity, as a means of increasing household income during hard times caused by crop failures, high food prices, or other unpredictable events.
How the strongest solutions were identified
A recent World Bank report, Niger: Food Security and Safety Nets has informed the design of Niger’s new safety net initiative, finding that, for instance, very short-term transfers only after the occurrence of a large food crisis, do not strengthen household food security much beyond the life of the intervention.
“The new safety net in Niger has been designed based on a comprehensive analysis of Niger’s particular challenges,” said Carlo del Ninno, Senior Economist with the World Bank’s Africa Region. “We find that cash transfers to poor people must be for at least 18 months so as to have a positive impact; and that essential family practices campaigns do improve family health and children’s nutritional status.”
The new safety net will also follow international best practices such as a robust management information system to support key functions like targeting, a database of potential and actual beneficiaries, payment, and monitoring and evaluation. Significant resources will be invested in this before the actual large-scale payments begin.
Other medium-term responses recommended for Niger include: a) investment in agriculture to increase availability of staple food products by increasing productivity, improving efficiency of domestic agricultural markets, and reducing production risks for farmers; b) monitoring and anticipation of cereal price trends in neighboring countries; c) and a stronger emergency response.