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Niger need not have starved

Two weekends ago, the richest nations in the world pledged at Gleneagles to take urgent action to lift Africa out of extreme poverty. Aid was to be doubled, debts written off. The deal did not go as far as many hoped but, none the less, the rich world seemed united in the noble aspiration of making poverty history. Oxfam believed the deal could save 50 million children''s lives over five years. But as the G8 made promises, more than a million children were on the brink of starvation in Niger.

Far too late the world has woken up to the scale of the humanitarian disaster engulfing this impoverished West African state. Some 3.5 million people, about a quarter of the country''s population, are facing a famine of what the United Nations has called ''catastrophic proportions''. Yet the warnings were there for all to hear. In a chilling repetition of the Ethiopian famine of 20 years ago, Niger had been calling for help for months and was met with silence. And, as with Ethiopia, only when terrible images of dying children were shown on television was the world provoked to act. Now, thankfully, the money is coming in and the planes are arriving with food. But the scale of the relief effort needed is enormous and, for many, help will come too late.

It was heartbreakingly easy to prevent this happening and with relatively tiny sums of money. On Friday, Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, called for an emergency reserve fund to be set up. The rich world should back this now, before another famine disgraces the pledges they made at Gleneagles. Such a fund would pay for emergency relief as soon as the first warnings are given and would be replenished by donors later. True, this way we may never get to see the harrowing pictures of starving children which provoke us to action. We would have to learn to give without them.