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Impact of food aid on two communities in Niger

By Sarah McKune and Nicole Hood

Dr Sarah McKune is the Director of Public Health Programmes at the University of Florida.  She has worked in the West African Sahel since 2004, investigating household vulnerability, food security, and nutrition in the face of climate change and household adaptations.

Nicole Hood is an undergraduate student studying Health Science and English at the University of Florida. She plans to pursue a Masters in Public Health upon graduation in 2016.

Data presented here were collected as part of the University of Arizona and British Red Cross Cash Distribution Study in 2005 and as part of Dr McKune’s doctoral field research in 2010, which was funded by USAID’s Collaborative Research Support Programme (LCC CRSP). This article relies heavily on Dr McKune’s unpublished dissertation Climate Change, Livelihood, and Household Vulnerability in Eastern Niger.

Location:  Niger

What we know:  Food aid features in humanitarian response to food crisis to improve food security and halt or prevent a rise in acute malnutrition.

What this article adds: Longitudinal data were collected in five agropastoral communities affected by the 2005 and 2010 food crises in Niger to try to understand household vulnerability, the use of coping mechanisms, food security and nutritional status of children under five. Prevalence of acute malnutrition correlated positively with food aid in two of these communities, with improvements from 2005 to 2010 in Dareram and deterioration in Kékeni. Remittances from migrated family members and accessible-market foods contributed to coping capacity in Dareram. In Kékeni, anticipation of aid in 2010 influenced household migration patterns; response to food aid may trigger livelihood adaptation that increases or decreases household vulnerability. Timeliness of adequate food aid is critical; livelihood and livestock interventions are a necessary adjunct in pastoral communities.


Niger, a land-locked country in the African Sahel, is one of the least developed countries in the world. Heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture for its food supply, Niger’s food security is highly vulnerable to the erratic rainfall patterns experienced across the Sahel in recent years. In particular, agricultural and agropastoral communities located in areas where rainfall is barely enough to sustain crop production in good years (and fails to do so as often as not) suffer from high rates of malnutrition and food insecurity. In years of crisis, such as 2005, 2010 and 2012, undernutrition rates soar. This article investigates the role of food aid in two Nigerien communities in Tanout District, Dareram and Kékeni, during the 2005 and 2010 food crises.

Niger is consistently ranked among the least developed countries in the world. Its population is among the most rapidly growing and relies almost entirely on subsistence, rain-fed agriculture for its food supply. Much of the Government’s budget comes from foreign assistance; livestock and uranium are among the few exported goods. The population of 19.1 million is projected to reach 24 million by 2020, due to the alarmingly high 4% growth rate. The prevalence of total undernutrition (defined as weight-for-height z-scores (WHZ) of <-2 and/or oedema) in 2009, a non-crisis year, was 12.3% in children under five, and prevalence of severe undernutrition (defined as WHZ of <-3) was 2.1% (UNICEF, 2009). In Zinder region, the research area for this study, the prevalence of total undernutrition was 15.4% in 2009. This was slightly above the 15% threshold used as an indicator of an emergency situation (UNICEF, 2009). Thus, even in normal years, nutrition is an urgent problem.

The Nigerien Government, along with national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and United Nations (UN) agencies, monitors prevalence of undernutrition. Heightened undernutrition rates detected by surveillance of child growth serve as an indicator of impending crisis, particularly when they appear early in the year. Nationally, the multiplicity of causes of undernutrition is complex and likely varies across crisis years, as does the national/international response triggered by crisis. In 2005, the national Government refused to acknowledge and appropriately respond to the severity of the food crisis and the international response was late and uncoordinated. Research indicates that the lessons learned by humanitarian aid groups in 2005 and changes implemented in policy and government response since then facilitated improved response during the 2010 crisis. In this instance, once again, crop and fodder production were low (much worse, in fact, than in 2005), and rates of undernutrition and child mortality were high. In stark contrast to the events of 2005, the 2010 response was timely, widespread and coordinated. One major exception to the improved response of 2010 was the limited access to the northern pastoral zone. This was due to the political insecurity that began in 2007 and which restricted the movement of humanitarian aid and development assistance personnel during the 2010 crisis. The presence and activity of an al Qaeda cell in Niger, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), further complicated aid efforts: as the safety and security of expatriate staff working with international NGOs was jeopardised and aid workers were increasingly targeted, more and more NGOs pulled out of the region.        


This article utilises longitudinal data, first collected by the author as part of the University of Arizona and British Red Cross (BRC) 2005 Cash Distribution Monitoring and Evaluation team, then supplemented by data collected during research conducted in the same communities following the 2010 crisis. During both 2005 and 2010, household surveys, key informant interviews, focus groups and anthropometric measurements were conducted in five of the same communities to understand household vulnerability, the use of coping mechanisms, food security and nutritional status of children under five. Food security data and corresponding sample size came from household surveys (n=19), whereas nutritional status came from anthropometric measurements of children aged 6-60 months, including children of the targeted households, but also including community children in an effort to secure measurements of 40 children. The majority of children came from households that were selected at random for the first survey in 2005 and participated again in 2010.

Dareram and Kékeni were found to have the greatest improvement and decline, respectively, in nutritional status between 2005 and 2010 (see Tables 1 and 2).  What follows is an analysis of these two communities, their coping strategies, aid activities in the community and other determinants of food and livelihood security. Utilising data collected in the post-harvest period just after the food crises in 2005 and 2010, this study seeks to investigate the role of food security and humanitarian food aid as determinants of nutrition (mean weight-for-height z-scores). (Food security was calculated based on the frequency of use and severity of coping mechanisms employed by household during crisis, including changed eating habits, decreased portions at meals, decreased nutritional quality at meals, acceptance of gifts/loans from family and friends, decreased number of meals, collection of wild famine foods, day without eating, and sale of personal belongings. The variable has a range of 1-15 and is binned into tertiles of mild, moderate and high food insecurity.)

Case studies


Dareram is a community of about 200 people situated in three small settlements. Predominantly Tuareg, community members are agropastoralists of the Icherifan clan (those that claim descent from the prophet Mohammed). Slaves of the noble Tuareg, their ancestors escaped and formed the community of Dareram. Initially, families continued to practice transhumance (seasonal movement of people with their livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures), and at least some part of the family would travel with small ruminants, camel and cattle toward Agadez in the north; however this practice has diminished over time because of declining herd numbers. As one participant stated, “Our grandparents were pastoralists, but we, we have come to know agropastoralism” (Dareram, male focus group, 2010). With unreliable rainfall and years of crisis repeating in shorter intervals, mobility has declined and reliance on crop production has increased. Not everyone cultivated crops before, but now community members feel it is clear that animals will be lost with each crisis, so the entire community has started cultivating crops.

This community has historically relied on the natural resource base of the area (such as famine food) during crisis years. Women would collect fodder to sell at market; household heads and families would collect wild foods to survive on through the crisis. Heads of household and young men would also travel en exode (together) in search of work or food. In good years, youth travel en exode to earn money with which they buy their own animals to raise, but the strategy is also employed by heads of household during times of crisis. During the crisis in 1973, heads of household travelled south with camel and effectively secured food supply for those at home. When these efforts fail, however, entire families flee the area, as happened in 1984, the worst crisis in living memory for this community. The entire community fled to either Nigeria or the nearest Nigerien cities of Tanout, Zinder, and Agadez. Most went to Nigeria where they stayed two to three years, but some who fled during the 1984 famine have never returned. Many social ties within the community were broken at this time, and community members see this as a turning point in their vulnerability to crisis.

The 2010 crisis was not as bad as 2005 for this community. In 2005 there was a rain deficit and some households did not produce any grain. Regionally, the price of millet per tia (a local standard measure) passed 1,100 FCFA (West African Franc), triple its normal price, and was scarcely available at market. Those who were able to cultivate a harvest shared what they had with those whose harvest failed entirely; however, generalised production deficit led to crisis within the community and no outside humanitarian aid (food or otherwise) was received. Households reportedly collected boscia (wild food) more than 50 km north of Dareram to bring home to their families to eat. In comparison, during the 2010 crisis, there was always grain at the nearby market and the price of millet rose but did not surpass 500 FCFA per tia. The entire community stayed in place, with the exception of young men who left en exode, largely to Nigeria. The financial contributions of those exodants are cited as instrumental to the community’s survival of the 2010 crisis as they allowed family members to purchase grain from market. Other coping strategies included small-scale commerce (sale of tea and jewellery) and quick sale of livestock early in the crisis. By June, however, reserves were empty and the community was in crisis. NGOs including Catholic Relief Services began distribution of substantial food aid to the community. This is in distinct contrast to 2005, when Dareram received no aid. The aid that came in 2010 came in four phases: 1) distribution of corn and sorghum (50 kg per seven people); 2) distribution of corn and beans (12.5 kg per person); 3) blanket distribution of 50 kg corn to all families with a child under five years old and half a litre of oil per child under five; and 4) distribution of 50 kg of corn per child under five. The community cites the loss of men en exode and declining livestock holdings, due to death and sale, as the direct consequences of the 2010 crisis, and they attribute financial contributions of exodants and humanitarian aid as the most important determinants of their ability to endure the 2010 crisis. Indeed, total undernutrition rates were lower in 2010 (8.6%) than in 2005 (13.3%), suggesting a positive impact of humanitarian aid on child nutrition indicators. In 2010, no household (n=19) was categorised as highly food insecure.

Participants identified repeated years of poor rainfall as the greatest threat to food security and nutritional status within the community. Youth and household heads leave to find work, but they are not always successful. Those who are left at home are no longer able to rely on natural resources (wild food) while they are gone. One must travel farther and farther north to find those wild foods that remain. The community relied heavily on humanitarian aid during the last crisis and recognises that there is no guarantee that there will be aid during the next crisis.


Kékeni is an agricultural community made up of over 100 households that is heavily reliant on rain-fed crop cultivation; primarily millet. Although this represents the primary livelihood of most houses, some households keep a small number of livestock. The production ratio, used as an indicator of herd production and calculated as the quotient of the total livestock units (TLU) and the number of reference adults (RA), is 0.19 in Kékeni. (The concept of TLU provides a convenient method for quantifying a wide range of different livestock types and sizes in a standardised manner.) In addition to livestock holding, some households practice off-season gardening – cultivating tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes and/or squash, depending on the year and water availability. Keeping livestock (particularly cattle) and off-season gardening are largely the responsibility of women. Historically, the community also hunted. Around 1970 the number of wild animals, particularly guinea hen and deer, began declining, which largely eliminated hunting by this community. Access to water is a major constraint. There are two open cement wells that function during the wet season, only one of which functions during the dry season. The well that functions year-round is used for both animal and human consumption during the dry season, which leads to a lot of tension within the community concerning water use and distribution. The community is over 40 km from a health centre, requiring six hours by cart or foot. As a result, a number of women have died in labour while traveling to the health centre, a concern voiced by the community.

Coping strategies during crisis years in this community historically included gathering of wild plants for human and animal consumption, hunting and migration – particularly among the poorest families. A majority of the population fled to the Nigerien cities of Matameye and Zinder in 1973 and to Tessaoua in 1984. There was no aid at that time unless families relocated to refugee camps in cities or towns nearby, so once hunting and collection of wild foods failed, families fled. In 2005 and 2010, some aid reached the community of Kékeni, so many people stayed. In hope of receiving aid within the community, many households (24%, n=33) sent young men en exode to Nigeria, Libya, the city of Agadez and even Europe in search of work. Both male and female community members fear that this strategy is undermining the strength of the community because it is breaking families apart.

In terms of rainfall deficit and crop production, residents and scientific evidence indicate that the 2010 crisis was worse than the one in 2005 in Kékeni, but not as bad as those in 1973 or 1984. However according to the community the impact was worse in 2010 than it was in 2005, 1984, or 1973; they attribute this, among other things, to their inability to use their historic coping mechanisms. For example, there is now only one species of wild food to collect and no animals to hunt. Indeed, data indicate that the impact of the crises on total undernutrition rates was much greater in 2010 (27.8%) than in 2005 (15.2%) in this community. In contrast to Dareram, where no households were reported to be highly food insecure in 2010, 26.3% (n=19) of Kékeni households were highly food insecure (n = 38, p = .053).  Other factors worsening the impact of the 2010 crisis in Kékeni include the short interval between the 2005 and 2010 crises and the difference in amount and timeliness of aid. In 2005, households were beneficiaries of the Cash Distribution Project of the Red Cross and received 120,000 FCFA. A food-for-work project was also active in the area, providing a second source of aid. In 2010, families received an average of two sacks (50 kg) of grain, in large part through blanket feeding programmes for children under five years old and protective rations for children enrolled in feeding programmes (36% of children surveyed were enrolled in feeding programmes, n=41). However, prior to the arrival of any aid, an estimated half to two-thirds of the household heads sold livestock, purchased and stocked what grain they could, and then travelled en exode to seek work in either Agadez or nearby communities that had sufficient crop production. Those who remained received aid. The community identifies consecutive crises, population growth, lack of health infrastructure, shifting temporal and geographic distribution of rainfall, decreasing quantity of rainfall, lack of aid and the loss of natural resources as key determinants in the community’s inability to effectively manage the 2010 crisis.


Timely distribution of appropriately targeted food aid may have important impact on household food security and nutritional outcomes. Focus group and key informant interviews show that Dareram received no aid in 2005, but was the beneficiary of at least four phases of food aid in 2010; conversely, those data indicate that Kékeni benefitted from the Red Cross’s cash distribution in 2005 and received minimal aid in 2010. Nutritional rates correlate positively with food aid in these communities, with improvements from 2005 to 2010 in Dareram and deterioration in Kékeni. This information is validated by household surveys, which indicate that 94% of households in Dareram and 63% of household in Kékeni received some form of food aid during the 2010 crisis. In addition to receiving less aid in 2010 than previously, in Kékeni the type of aid received by households was largely linked to children under five rather than the general population and reportedly arrived late, after important coping mechanisms had been employed. Food security data for 2010 show a significant difference (n=38, p=.053) between the two communities, while the nutritional data (albeit important) do not (n=38, p=.121).

Humanitarian aid can act as a catalyst for mobility, immobility or shifting patterns of mobility and household demography. Historically, communities fled their home location for towns and cities during crisis to ensure that aid organisations found them. As aid becomes more and more common, it is reaching many of these stationary communities in situ. However, others, including nomadic pastoralists, are learning a lesson from agropastoralists from the past and are coming into towns or choosing to partially sedentarise in order to avail themselves of emergency services, including food aid that arrives in towns during crises such as 2005 and 2010.

Food aid can also be seen as the driver of change in patterns of migration and household demographics, as in the case of exode. In Kékeni, individuals (not families, as historically occurred) migrated, with the hope that those who stayed in place would benefit from aid distribution, which is exactly what happened: food aid was distributed to those households who remained and had young children. But the consequences are mixed. Many of these were female-headed households, a highly vulnerable population and a clear target of such intervention.  However, these women also complained that migration was undermining the social fabric of their community by increasing the rates of divorce, a consequence that renders them much more vulnerable in the long run.

The use of coping mechanisms during food crisis is evolving (abandonment of old mechanisms) due to the shortened periodicity between food crises. Qualitative data indicate that the availability of wild foods and wild animals for consumption during times of crisis has decreased significantly in the past 20 to 30 years, eliminating historically important coping mechanisms among agropastoral and pastoral populations of the area. The loss of indigenous species is an important, recently developed, constraint on livelihood and food security in years of poor rainfall. And, while variation in rainfall and years of rain deficit are normal for the region, the decreasing periodicity between crisis years is decreasing household resilience to subsequent shocks.

Response to food aid may trigger livelihood adaptation that increases or decreases household vulnerability. This situation was observed in 2010 during pilot testing of the research instruments. In October 2010, the research team convened in Tanout town and aimed to target agropastoral households in and around Tanout as participants in the pilot phase of data collection. After arriving in Tanout, however, the team quickly became aware of a refugee camp of nomadic pastoral Fulani situated 500 metres from the team’s accommodations. All instruments were pilot-tested in this community and the experience of the nomadic Fulani is illustrative of others in the area. They were very hard hit by the 2010 crisis, losing over 90% of their livestock, including donkeys. The 2005 crisis had been difficult for them and they did not receive any aid. Once the severity of the 2010 crisis was clear, having heard that aid was distributed in Tanout, families fled to Tanout and set up camp on the outskirts of town. Indeed, by the time researchers met with the community in October 2010, they had been beneficiaries of food aid distributions. But the decision to move into town and wait for aid to arrive rendered them highly vulnerable.  Having abandoned their traditional livelihood and associated coping mechanisms, they would have been extremely vulnerable, despite their adaptation.

Given the vulnerable nature of Sahelien populations to the impact of climate change, preparedness and livelihood projects must be tailored to the unique realities and needs of pastoralists, agropastoralists and agriculturalists. Strategies to protect herds (e.g. animal vaccination campaigns) and rebuild them (e.g. breeding exchanges), along with programmes that target improved herd resilience (e.g. drought-hardy species) may be more effective in improving food security and nutrition outcomes among pastoralists than traditional livelihood diversification strategies. Findings from this research emphasize the need to understand the complex drivers of a food crisis and to identify the most vulnerable populations, given the nature of the crisis, because populations’ responses variably impact the effectiveness of food aid programmes in improving food security and nutritional outcomes. 

For more information, contact: Dr Sarah Lindley McKune.

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Reference this page

Sarah McKune and Nicole Hood (2016). Impact of food aid on two communities in Niger. Field Exchange 51, January 2016. p68.