2 August 2005
There is no phase of a large-scale humanitarian operation that could be said to be easy. One of the most demanding, however, is the meticulous planning required to ensure that the distribution of food does not do more harm than good.
"It can be frustrating," said Peter Pearce, team leader of the British Red Cross emergency response unit (ERU), which arrived in the hunger-stricken west African country of Niger a week ago.
"The food is there in the warehouse, people are starving, you want to move ahead, but you can't rush into a distribution just like that."
Since last Sunday, Peter and his team of five have fanned out across three of Niger's most seriously affected provinces - Tahoua, Maradi and Agadez - where they have been working almost round the clock to set up essential logistical infrastructure in readiness for food distribution.
They join colleagues from the French Red Cross, who are also working in Zinder province, the Spanish Red Cross and specialists from the Red Cross Federation in Geneva. They have all come together in response to the country's alarming food crisis, along with the colossal mobilisation of the world's other leading humanitarian agencies.
Nearly three million people - 25 per cent of the population - are short of food, with millions more in the neighbouring countries of Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso also facing severe shortages. The UN estimates Niger needs 23,000 tonnes of food aid to avoid famine.
"Much as you might like to, you just can't drive into a village and start chucking food out of the back of a lorry," Peter explains. "People could get killed."
Aside from the danger that a hungry crowd could turn violent in its desperation, members of the ERU have spent the last week probing the most vulnerable areas, hiring and training local volunteers and locating adequate warehousing. The wait is almost over.
Distribution of food supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the four provinces where the Red Cross is working is due to begin this week (August 2). All will be aimed at vulnerable children under five years old and their families.
In the village of Tigar, some 15km west of Tahoua town, the level of need becomes all too apparent. "There's no meat, there's no milk, there's no grain, and our animals have died," said Zeinabou, a 40-year-old widow and mother of 10. "For one year it's been like this," she said, pointing to the bowl of dried grass that, along with small quantities of vegetable oil, has become the staple diet here.
Zeinabou and the rest of her village have assembled for a small distribution of millet and dates by the Niger Red Cross. The distribution is minuscule in comparison to the needs nationwide. But the dedicated national Society is doing what it can to join the aid
"I volunteered to help my country, my people are suffering," said Ousseini Razikou, 29, one of the Red Cross workers helping distribute supplies.
For Eric Rossi, a French Red Cross logistician attached to the British ERU, the Tagar distribution vividly demonstrates the dangers that could arise in a larger scale distribution. At one point, the villagers surge forward, swamping the Red Cross volunteers. Order is quickly restored, but it is not hard to see how quickly the situation could collapse.
"There's always a risk that a crowd could start out calm and then turn angry," he said. "We have to be incredibly careful."
Back in Tahoua town, a training session run by nutritionist Mija Ververs from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva, is underway. With the aid of scales and a wooden height-measuring device, she's teaching a group of 10 local nurses and volunteers how to identify the children who are most in need of supplementary nutrition.
Her trainees will be staffing one of the three main feeding centres in Tahoua region opening next week. From each of those centres, the Red Cross will supply a further seven to 12 satellite centres. It is a model that will be largely replicated around all four regions in which the organisation is now operating.
"In some ways, every day is a lost day. We know that they need this food now. But we have to prepare, we have to train the people, otherwise this operation just can't happen," Mija said.
Find out more about our logistics emergency response unit