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My challenge in Niger

I mentioned to a friend last night (oh the joys of facebook and skype when you’re away from home) that my experience so far of responding to the food crisis in Niger isn’t much like the emergency response training I did last year. She asked: “Why have you been drafted in if it’s not an emergency situation?” I started explaining about the difference between a natural disaster like an earthquake and things like food crises, likely boring her senseless.

But this is the problem – and the challenge. Natural disasters are fast, shocking and pretty simple to explain. Disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the 2004 Boxing day tsunami hit the headlines and the publics’ conscience. We saw non-stop footage of the destruction caused by the Haiti earthquake beamed into our sitting rooms via the 24-hour television news cycle, and the donations for the emergency response come flooding in.

On the other hand, emergencies like food crises are more slow moving, complicated and often lack hope. To explain what’s going on now in the country in question, you invariably have to explain what’s gone on before. There usually no nice, neat point on the time line to start from. People loose interest.

How do I get people to care what’s going in Niger when most people don’t even know where it is? How do I explain in a straight forward way what the problems are, and the solutions, without resorting to the same old stereotypes of children with swollen bellies, sunken eyes and skeletal frames being fed by aid agencies?

How do we explain the underlying, and complicating problems to malnutrition, like health and hygiene? And what about all the work that needs to be done on a structural level – the doctors, nurses, clinics and hospitals that are needed to treat these illnesses? What about people’s livelihoods? How can we help better prepare communities for these times of crisis?

This is my challenge in Niger.

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