I am flying over the Sahara desert. The red sand against the deep blue African sky create an image of striking beauty and at the same time it shows the hardship that the countries of the region face in their struggle for survival. When I started this blog, four months ago, I was on my way to Haiti. Now, I am flying to Niger, in the Sahel region for my first African mission. The two countries are very different, and yet they have a lot in common. In the case of Haiti, a 7,2 Earthquake killed over 220, 000 people; in the Sahel region, 300,000 children under the age of five die from malnutrition related causes every year. According to the Human Development Index of the UN, Haiti is the poorest country in America; Niger is the poorest in Africa, and indeed, the poorest in the world. This means that both countries suffer from a structural problem. They are permanently on the edge of a cliff, and their resilience to disasters is low. As a consequence, both are highly dependent on humanitarian assistance, and this makes them both countries key priorities for my job.
The disasters that Niger and Haiti have had to endure have put them on top of the media agenda. Whilst Haiti dominated the news at the beginning of 2010, Niger hit the headlines in 2005. The terrible images of starving children in the Sahel region are still vivid in our memories. After the 2005 crisis, the Commission developed a strategy based on the lessons learnt to make sure that something like that would never happen again. Since then, we have put in place a strategy to reduce malnutrition in Niger and in the neighboring countries of the Sahel region and have funded it with a total of €140 million. Identifying, preventing and treating malnutrition at the earliest stage is at the heart of our strategy. As the eminent expert in nutrition, Yves Martin Preval, once said “if you can see malnutrition in a child then it is often too late”. Thanks to European funds, over 1 million children have been helped over the last five years.
At the centre of our strategy is the identification of a crisis before it occurs. The main reason I am now traveling to Niger, is because today the whole Sahel region is slipping into a serious food crisis, a crisis we have to stop. Climate change, economic crisis, and high food prices have put up to 10 million people at risk of malnutrition, at least until the next harvest in November. On Wednesday, I approved an additional aid of €24 million to reinforce our action in the region, and we are going to follow the situation very closely in case more help is needed during the lean season.
Our humanitarian contribution will help Niger – as it helps Haiti – to cope with the crisis today. But our main goal has to be the long term development. Niger, like Haiti, needs investments in education, roads, agriculture, small businesses. I hope they will arrive and will make my work less necessary.