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Hunger is spreading in Africa

Food aid is beginning to flow into Niger, where some 2.9 million people face food shortages.

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Heart-wrenching stories of hunger are starting to flow out of the West African nation of Niger - stories of people like the proud, round-faced mother of an infant named Raba, who walked a day's journey to bring her emaciated son to a feeding center. Already this mother - who was reluctant to give her name because of the shame of it all - has buried five of her 11 children after they succumbed to the hunger that increasingly grips her land.

Yet amid the growing focus on Niger's woes, the broader fact is that the country's 2.9 million hungry people are just a fraction of Africa's 31.1 million food-deprived masses, scattered across Sudan's Darfur region, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Uganda, and elsewhere. Despite progress in boosting democracy, ending wars, and economic growth, Africa is the only region in the world becoming less and less able to feed itself.

Reasons include the relentless spread of desert and drought, high population growth, bad governance, and the world community's flawed hunger-response system.

In all, "Things are moving in the wrong direction," says Marc Cohen of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington. "If we look at sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, all the projections are that poverty and hunger are going to get worse."

In 1970, sub-Saharan Africa had 18 million malnourished children. By 1997 there were 32 million, according to IFPRI. The global trend, meanwhile, moved in the opposite direction: 203 million hungry children in 1970 down to 166 million in 1997, according to a recent IFPRI report.

The focus on Niger appears to be growing, in part because a British Broadcasting Corp. team recently emerged from the remote, landlocked nation with terrible images of starving children that were broadcast around the world.

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