This article is part of an AlertNet special report on humanitarian aid: futureofaid.trust.org
By George Fominyen
DAKAR (AlertNet) - With Niger facing another year of food shortages that threaten 7 million people, a former aid official has warned U.N. and foreign aid agencies to heed the lessons from the West African country's devastating 2005 food crisis.
Seidou Bakari, who coordinated Niger's food crisis unit during the 2004-2005 emergency, said international aid groups must involve local officials to avert the kind of conflict of authority that often hurts the effectiveness of aid operations.
"The U.N. agencies and international aid groups are there to help the state and not to take over the government's job of running the country," said Bakari, the former head of the food crisis and aid coordination unit in Niger's National System for the Prevention and Management of Food Crises (DNPGCA).
"When international agencies attempt to bypass the government and think they can go ahead to solve problems alone, they only create unnecessary conflict with authorities and the ultimate goal to help people takes a knock and could fail," he told AlertNet by telephone from Niger's capital Niamey.
Such an approach, he said, contributed to the chaotic management of the 2005 food crisis, particularly when the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), pulled out of the DNPGCA, a joint response agency attached to the prime minister's office.
The agency had been created in the 1990s to bring together the Niger government, donor countries and international agencies to jointly monitor and respond to recurrent food shortages plaguing the vast, landlocked country perched on the edge of the Sahara.
"The WFP had the impression that the Nigerien government was minimising the seriousness of the crisis," recalled Bakari, who is now an independent nutrition consultant.
The 2005 food crisis left an estimated 3.6 million people short of food -- a third of Niger's population at the time -- after drought and locusts ravaged crops in late 2004.
Critics accused then-president Tandja Mamadou of downplaying the crisis to avoid damaging his image, although his government said he had appealed for aid before the emergency deepened.
The growing tension between Mamadou's government and foreign NGOs became apparent in late 2005 when Niger accused aid agencies of exaggerating the danger of further food shortages in 2006 to boost their funds. It also threatened to expel any organisation operating without the government's blessing.
Bakari said much of the mistrust stemmed from the way Niger was sidelined by international players.
He said the U.N. system set up a parallel response strategy and issued a funding appeal that did not allocate resources to the DNPGCA agency -- a move that deprived the Niger government of any sense of ownership over the aid response.
"This appeared as a top-down manner of operating which made the government think that the agencies were stepping on the sovereignty of their nation," Bakari explained.
Experts say most natural disasters and conflicts requiring an international emergency response require it because the state is either absent, like in Somalia, or lacks the resources to intervene, like in Haiti.
Donors often prefer to funnel money through aid agencies rather than the local government to try to ensure stricter controls over funds and that aid is delivered impartially.
"If you are dealing with a complex emergency that is fast breaking and the government is in fact part of the conflict, it is not possible to say we (humanitarians) would do what the government wishes," said Ross Mountain, director general of DARA, an organisation working on aid effectiveness.
"Humanitarian assistance is to be neutral and impartial and go to people who are in need and sometimes, that isn’t well understood as we’d all like," he told AlertNet.
Yet Niger was not in conflict at the time of the 2005 food crisis, and Nigeriens could not understand why a joint response agency -- hailed by donors and NGOs as the most exemplary and transparent framework in the region -- was completely sidelined, said Elsa Delcombel, a technical assistant on secondment from the French government to the Nigerien food crisis unit in 2005.
"The way the mechanism operates not even a kilogramme of cereal could leave a warehouse without an approval from the WFP and international partners," Delcombel said in an interview from Paris where she now works for the French agriculture ministry.
"The Nigerien authorities felt extremely humiliated, leading to a toughening of their stance towards international aid agencies that they saw as stripping them off their aid."
Bakari said mediation by the European Union later ensured a joint response but precious time was lost in resolving the row.
"There was a delay of about two months in the implementation of our joint response plan and that certainly had an impact on people's health and lives, but no real figures are available," he added.
As another food crisis threatens almost half Niger's 16.3 million people, the government is currently involved in contingency plans -- a sign some of the lessons of the 2005 crisis have been learnt.
The government has also taken part in the process to draft the 2012 U.N. consolidated humanitarian appeal (CAP) for Niger, according Maman Yabilan, Bakari's successor.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)
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