18 October 2005

Niger, Africa

Not all news that doesn't make the headlines is good news. This post is to help keep us from forgetting that. (Hat Tip to blacklib, a diarist at Daily Kos).

The country of Niger, in Africa, has up to 2.4 million people facing famine right now in the wake of droughts and locust swarms. Its only significant export (70% of the total by dollar value) is uranium (which led to fraudulent rumors that it was supplying uranium to Iraq), and the uranium trade is in a bit of a slump at the moment. International awareness and support is minimal.

Since gaining independence, Niger has had a legitimately elected government from 1993-1996, then a coup, and then a restoration of democracy in 1999.

The predominantly Muslim (80%) country has a life expectency of 42 years and about one in eight babies die before their first birthday. A majority of the people in the country are children. About 48% of the population is under the age of fifteen, while only a little more than 2% are over the age of sixty-five (by comparison, in the United States 21% are under fifteen and 12% are over sixty-five). Five major ethnic groups and several more minor ones share this single state. More than 90% of the population of about 10.6 million people (as of several years ago) is engaged in marginal agriculture and only 3% of the country's land is suitable for horticulture. The Sahara itself is encroaching upon what little agricultural land remains. About 86% of the adult population is illiterate. Per capita GNP is about $1,000 a year.

The entire electrical power output of the country, which is one of the richest in the world in terms of uranium, whose main peaceful use is to produce electricity, is about 25 megawatts, about the output of a university sized experimental reactor, enough for about 25,000 households at American levels of power consumption.

About 99.5% of the population lacks a motor vehicle, a radio, a television or a phone. The most impoverished immigrant and inner city ghettos in America are fabulously wealthy by comparison. The country has one radio per twenty people. Moreover, it is very likely that the most of 0.5% who live in some semblence of modernity live in one or two enclaves in a couple of major cities. For the vast majority of the people of Niger, the industrial revolution has never happened.

A nine decade old insurgency has finally ended, and it doesn't have a huge military (only 5,300 troops, which makes the entire military smaller than a single brigade of the United States Army). But, who cares if one in five of your people faces starvation.

There are few places on Earth that have farther to go to enter the modern era. There is hope. The United States once had a similar population and economy and state of public health, still remembered what it was like to fight a war, and also had a fragile new democracy, but that was in 1820.

Where does one begin? How does one address problems so massive? Food for the present comes first, but far more is needed. This entire nation needs to dramatically transform itself, or crisis after crisis will hit it and it will have no ability to respond. Niger can't afford to go the slow route and take 195 years to develop. It needs to leap frog over developments that the United States inched through. But, it also needs to develop in ways it can handle and absorb. It is an urgent crisis, but, like so many similar crises, has been relegated to the back burners of world affairs. What it will look like an another generation is anybody's guess. One would like to think that it will look completely different, but it is hard to hold out that kind of hope.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

More from NPR last summer.

blacklib said...

thanks for drawing attention to the crisis in Niger.When i was in Africa back in the eighties,in Nairobi,the CNN African Bureau chief said to me that stories in Africa only get headlines when whites are involved e.g Zimbabwe.The Darfur genocide has occurred ten years after Rwanda and not many noticed again.I'm surprised that Kossacks also fall into that group,but with help from people like you,maybe we can turn it around. http://www.pawilderjai.blogspot.com