U.N. secretary-general says world body determined to ensure aid for Niger | VailDaily.com

U.N. secretary-general says world body determined to ensure aid for Niger

NIAMEY, Niger – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday the United Nations was determined to get aid to all those in need in hunger-stricken Niger, days after an aid group said the U.N. response to the hunger crisis here was inadequate.Annan was wrapping up a two-day trip aimed at highlighting the plight of 5 million people across northwest Africa, most of them in Niger, facing food shortages after their crops were ravaged by drought and locusts.Annan met Wednesday with President Mamadou Tandja and said afterward they discussed the region’s food crisis “and measures that ought to be taken to ensure what has happened this year does not happen in the future.””We are determined to work with the government, with our NGO (non-governmental organization) partners and all the U.N. agencies here to ensure that all of those in need do get the help,” Annan said.In a statement on the eve of Annan’s visit, the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said “the U.N. was slow to react to the current epidemic of acute malnutrition in Niger, and its response continues to be inadequate.”The U.N. was among the first, in November, to warn of the impending hunger crisis in the desert region, but its appeals for aid were largely ignored at first.Annan did not respond directly to the criticism when asked about it during a visit to the eastern city of Zinder Tuesday, saying only: “I was very impressed with what MSF is trying to do in Niger.”In Zinder, Annan visited skeletal babies and heard hungry villagers’ pleas for help.In the capital Wednesday, Annan met with U.N. officials and aid groups. He was expected to question them on the status of emergency distributions in Niger to help coordinate future aid to the desert nation, said Katy D. Thiam, a U.N. information officer in Niamey.”We will be looking forward to taking steps for the longer term to ensure food security,” Annan said.At U.N. headquarters Tuesday, spokesman Farhan Haq said the organization had “done all that it can with minimal funding,” and had increased its efforts sharply now that funding has improved.”The response we’re mounting now is quite effective and we’ll continue to work with all of our partners … to give the best possible assistance to the people of Niger,” Haq said.An estimated 3.6 million people are going hungry in Niger alone. The United Nations says at least 1.6 million people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania are also affected.Niger’s government and the United Nations started in November to issue aid appeals that were largely ignored, and top U.N. officials criticized donors for failing to help. Earlier this month, U.N. agencies increased their appeals to a total of $75 million for Niger.In its statement, MSF said U.N. food distributions were “not reaching those with the greatest needs, especially children under 5 years old in the worst-affected areas.”The group also said the crisis appeared to be worsening in some places. It said one of its emergency feeding centers had admitted 1,053 children Aug. 8-14, compared with 403 for all of July.While aid groups accuse the U.N. of doing too little, Tandja has accused the world body, aid groups and opposition parties of exaggerating his country’s problems for political and economic gain.Tandja has acknowledged food shortages, however, but said they weren’t unusual for his country – or for the entire Sahel region, a semi-desert scrubland that straddles the southern edge of the Sahara desert.U.N. experts have been careful to say that while the situation is worse than normal, it has not yet reached famine proportions.Tandja may have been uncomfortable with the international focus on what his political opponents have been quick to portray as his government’s failings.Vail – Colorado

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