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Happy birthday Niger!

Today is the 50th anniversary of Niger’s independence from France and there’s a party mood in the capital, Niamey. The office is closed, Ramadan begins in about a week, and people are taking the chance to have fun.

But there’s also a food crisis affecting more than half of the country’s 14 million people. It’s currently listed as the least developed country in the world, one of the poorest, and one in six children here won’t live to see their fifth birthday.

So what’s the party for?

This food crisis here is extreme. Tens of thousands of lives are at risk. Around 400,000 children face severe malnutrition this summer. The rainy season has started, bringing malaria, cholera, and flooding. 7.1 million people are already affected by the lack of food – that’s more than in any other food crisis in the world this century.

But this situation is also temporary. The longer term statistics for Niger tell a different story.

Look at population growth. True, Niger has one of the fastest growing populations in the world. But people here are living longer – the average life expectancy has risen massively from 38 years in 1970 to 51 years in 2008. The death rate has almost halved – 15/1,000 people in 2008 compared with 27/1,000 in 1970 – and the birth rate is falling too, although not at the same rate. But these are all good signs of progress.

Then let’s focus on children. It’s true that one in six children here don’t live until they’re five. That’s appalling. But it’s also true that in just 18 years, the number of children living to celebrate their fifth birthday has doubled in the country.  And the biggest improvement has been among the most vulnerable children, those under the age of one, who are now more likely to reach their first birthday. Another good sign of progress.

Then there’s politics. Again, it’s true there was a coup just five months ago. But the current government has promised to restore democracy, they have scheduled elections for early in 2011, and in March 2010 they called for international assistance for the food crisis. This public recognition of need has created an enabling environment for humanitarian work and it’s welcome.

This is a country that is progressing, but which has been hit hard by changes in climate and rising food prices, neither of which are in Niger’s control. Families here are suffering now.

A few days ago at our clinic for severely malnourished children in Aguie I meet a mother who initially refused to go to the clinic with her baby. She’d already given him up for dead, couldn’t believe that a child that sick could live. For three days Save the Children staff went to see her in her village, trying to make her come to the clinic to be with her child, but she wouldn’t leave the rest of her family and the start of the precious rains for a child she believed would never recover. Three days of intense care later he regained consciousness. A week later he was smiling at his now-laughing mother.

This baby has a better chance in life than most other children born in Niger in the last 50 years. He’s likely to celebrate 100 years of Niger’s independence in 2060. He’s more likely to go to school than his parents, his children are more likely to live. He has a more hopeful future than any generation of children since Niger’s independence, and we can’t allow that to be damaged by a short-term food crisis. That means we need to act now.

Find out what we’re doing in Niger to help children affected by the food crisis

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