A post I made some time ago, based in part upon Anne Orford's book Reading Humanitarian Intervention, dealt with the effect that the international development community could have on humanitarian crises: not merely in terms of responding to them, but actually contributing to their creation. It sadly seems that, in Niger, the unfolding food crisis is another example of the point that Orford was looking to make.
One of Orford's central points was the way in which the rhetorics of intervention always posit the international community as external to such crises until after they have developed and the are called upon to respond. This allows for the development of a particular narrative of intervention, in which the rich western nations and the institutions that they dominate arrive "heroically" on the scene to assist the poor "victim" states - always third world countries - who, through natural catastrophe, mismanagement or corruption, find themselves in something of a mess. The causes of the crisis are thus portrayed as internal to the state involved, whilst salvation always comes from outside. One of the most significant contributions of Orford's excellent book is to demonstrate just how far this is from the truth.
More often than not, the international community is deeply involved in manifold ways in the countries in which crisis "suddenly" arise; and many critics have alleged in the past that the presence and actions of the development institutions - most particularly but not limited to the economic "structural adjustment programmes" of the IMF and World Bank - actually serve to engender the conditions of possibility that allow such situations to arise; or, at least, hamstring the national governments in their attempts to deal with them effectively.
Perhaps most remarkable about the "famine" in Niger is that there seems to be plenty of food on the market; it is simply that many (and here it is important to remember that Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the most fragile economies) cannot afford it, for themselves or their children. The Niger Government, under pressure from major financial donors such as the EU, France and the IMF, was unable to hand out free food to the most vulnerable. The preferred option of the international community was that "moderately priced", subsidised cereals should be placed on the market; the Guardian reports that the reason given for this by the UN was that it was felt that too much "interference with the free market could disrupt Niger's development out of poverty". The painful absurdity of this position now, of course, seems clear.
Johanne Sekkenes, the head of the MSF mission in Niger, has noted that the Niger government was pressed hard to introduce difficult economic measures pursuant to a structural adjustment programme:
No sooner had the government been re-elected [this year] than it was obliged to introduce 19 per cent VAT on basic foodstuffs. At the same time, as part of the policy, emergency grain reserves were abolished.
And these measures, it seems, were enforced in full knowledge of the fact that 2004 had been a bad harvest for what is considered the second poorest country in the world. The triumph of economic rationality and models - often (as Orford notes) to the deliberate exclusion of other, non-economic factors that would make predictions less "scientific" - comes to seem, in these circumstances, nothing short of grotesque. And yet the dominant narrative remains that of the rich, heroic west arriving like the cavalry to assist the poor and (at best) mismanaged third world country out of its misery and victimhood - perhaps only, on this occasion (as on a number of others) criticised for being a little late.
Returning from a trip to Niger recently, the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy condemned the "sick avarice of rich countries, [and] the lack of prevention and vision from the international community." This, of course, is to be applauded; yet it is not enough, for it still does not (at least, sufficiently explicitly) situate the international development community not merely as present at but also as implicated in the genesis of the current crisis in Niger. More voices of this sort must be heard if "economic shock therapy" is to be held properly to account for its role in this and many other humanitarian crises.