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Oxfam: Rich countries ignoring lessons of Niger

8 September 2005

Oxfam: Rich countries ignoring lessons of Niger as southern Africa faces severe food shortages

Rich countries are failing to learn the lessons of the Niger food crisis as up to 10 million people in southern Africa face severe food shortages, said Oxfam today.

Oxfam started distributing food in Malawi this week. An estimated 4 million people in Malawi, 4 million in Zimbabwe, 1 million in Zambia, 400,000 in Mozambique, 500,000 in Lesotho and 200,000 in Swaziland will not have enough food to eat over the next six months unless help is provided quickly.

The crisis, expected to peak between November and February, is triggered by lack of rain, but the HIV/AIDS epidemic, enforced economic liberalisation and government policies are among the root causes, according to Oxfam.

Money is desperately needed now from rich countries so that charities, governments and the UN can prevent the crisis from worsening. Some donor governments have made significant contributions, however there is still a huge funding gap.

"Niger was forecast six months in advance, yet rich countries did almost nothing until the 11th hour. People died as a direct result. Now, there is an impending crisis in southern Africa. The situation is very different, but the principle is the same. If rich countries wait, once again, until TV crews arrive before giving enough money, people in southern Africa will pay the price of their neglect," said Neil Townsend, Oxfam's Regional Humanitarian Co-coordinator for southern Africa.

Southern Africa is caught in a cycle of deepening poverty. People in the region are used to coping when rains fail, but are increasingly unable to do so because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other economic factors. A similar crisis happened in southern Africa in 2002-2003.

"Up to 10 million people are facing severe food shortages in southern Africa. Some people are already being forced to take their children out of school so that they can help find food for the family," added Townsend.

"Unlike Niger, this crisis is about HIV/AIDS as much as drought. Food is needed now, but the root causes of the crisis, HIV/AIDS and poverty, must also be tackled."

Oxfam is also calling today for UN member states to commit an additional $1 billion into an UN emergency reserve fund on top of their existing humanitarian aid levels, so that when a country such as those in southern Africa needs assistance, money would be available immediately.

The emergency fund is on the agenda of the UN Summit in New York starting on 14 September, which is billed as the biggest meeting of world leaders in history.

"Rich countries spend $1bn every day on supporting their farmers. If they pledged the same amount every year to a permanent emergency fund at the UN, preventable crises like Niger and southern Africa would not happen because money would be available as soon as a country needed it," said Townsend.

ENDS

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