Why is there a food crisis in Niger?

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

Didn't Pink Floyd just help bully the world's richest industrialized nations into putting Africa nearer the top of their agendas while at the same time increasing Africa's aid and slashing $40 billion of the continent's debt?

Don't we have a president who talks constantly about promoting a "culture of life" and bolstering democracies, particularly those in Muslim nations?

And didn't mainstream press promise after 9/11 not to let insularity and frivolity get in the way of covering important international news?

Yes, yes, and yes.

So how did Niger (pronounced nee-ZHAIR or NI-jur, depending on your willingness to sound French), a moderate, Muslim, West African democracy, end up on the brink of a massive famine without the United States country noticing?

Good question. The longer answer:

Niger's primary, long-term problem is its location. The European colonialists who drew Africa's borders created in Niger a landlocked nation that's 80 percent Sahara Desert. The 4 percent of Niger that's arable is tucked in the country's southwest corner along the Niger River.

Even under the best of circumstances, Niger is one of the worst places on Earth to call home. That's not hyperbole. Niger ranks second on the United Nations' list of "Least Livable" nations. Imagine: Niger is relatively peaceful and democratic, but it's still a worse place to live than Congo, a country that over the past decade has experienced the world's deadliest military conflict since WWII, and Somalia, a country so chaotic that its national government keeps its offices next door in Kenya.

Like I said, under the best of circumstances, it's an awful place to live. Unfortunately for Nigeriens (pronounced nee-zhair-ee-ENS), the past year can hardly be described as the best of circumstances. Niger is several years into a severe drought, and the constantly shifting Sahara is swallowing up Nigerien grasslands. To top it off, the crops that farmers have managed to grow have been attacked by, I kid you not, locusts.

Somebody somewhere must have pissed off Moses again, because West Africa is suffering its worst plague of locusts in 15 years. Locusts are voracious herbivores capable of eating an amount of plant matter equal to their own weight each day. Since they travel in swarms of millions, locust swarms can devour entire farms within hours.

Endemic poverty, plus the drought and the locusts, created the disaster. Oxfam reports that 3.6 million of Niger's approximately 12 million people face starvation if the international community doesn't provide food aid now.

Niger and organizations like the U.N. World Food Programme tried alerting the world about the impending disaster as early as last fall, but the world ignored them. In March, the U.N. asked donor nations for a measly $16 million, the amount the Yankees are paying Randy Johnson this season. They received just $1 million, twice the amount Jennifer Wilbanks got for book and movie deal. (Spoiler alert: I haven't read her book yet, but Wilbanks ran away because she's a childish, selfish idiot engaged to an annoying weirdo.) In May, a U.N. plea for $30 million netted just $10 million.

Thanks to British TV crews recently beaming home images of emaciated Nigerien children, donor nation citizens and their governments are finally starting to wake up. The U.N. is now mobilizing to feed 2.5 million Nigeriens. If donor nations had started acting last fall, however, tens of thousands of people who have died or are going to die might have survived until this fall's harvest. And the cost of helping then would have been about $1 per affected person. With severe malnutrition so widespread, the intervention will now cost about $80 per person, according the U.N.

Why didn't the U.S. step in last fall or winter? Well, as we learned from the recent G-8 deal to help Africa and last December's Asian tsunami, we're stingy with foreign aid unless the public applies pressure to the government (which, in this case, it did not). American inaction is particularly vexing at a time when our president is paying so much lip-service to boosting democracy, promoting life, and winning over the hearts and minds of Muslims.

We could have helped Niger, a moderate, Muslim democracy, avoid this crisis for a measly $20 million. That's way less than the 1 percent of the $9 billion that an independent auditor says went mysteriously missing from the Coalition Provisional Authority's budget in Iraq.