Leaving no country behind: Niger – a personal insight

29 October 2017

Niger is an incredible country, the largest (by area) in West Africa, a relative haven of safety sandwiched between more turbulent neighbours (Libya, Mali, northern Nigeria), and of strategic importance for the security of the region. Ancient trade routes snake across the Sahara, where the Tuareg people are able to navigate endless dunes using the stars at night. Natural resources such as uranium and gold, oil and coal can be found. The Niger River runs through the west of the country, where island communities are skilled in building beautifully decorated mud houses. You can even find the last giraffes in West Africa, not far out of Niamey at Kouré. Not many people have ever heard of this land-locked country.

However, the usual narrative about Niger is depressing, not without reason. It is ranked 187th out of 188 on the Human Development Index in 2017. It has one of the highest population growth rates in the world (4.0% for 2010-2015), as well as extremely high maternal and child mortality rates. Access to water, sanitation and hygiene is low, especially in rural areas (80% of the population), where only 49% have access to improved water sources, and less than 5% to improved sanitation. The boundary between relief and development is blurred – many people live in situations that would be considered emergency conditions elsewhere in the world. With this catalogue of statistics, it’s no wonder that Niger was considered the worst place to be a child in 2017.

One problem with this narrative is that, while it may be true, it doesn’t tell the full story and eventually, a sense of hopelessness can begin to pervade the culture itself. The individual stories of resilience, courage, generosity, endurance and perseverance are rarely heard. Neither are the successes and improvements. The Diffa region in the East of the country welcomed 105,000 Nigerian refugees fleeing Boko Haram violence, with only 7,500 living in camps and the rest accommodated side by side with the local population. Since 1990 the child mortality rate has reduced by two-thirds.

Having lived and worked in Niger for more than three years, trying to assist the government to meet some of the basic needs of water, sanitation and hygiene, I noticed that Niger doesn’t come up much in English-speaking WASH research (certainly there is more in French, but one can find little crossover between the two languages). In Africa, we see a lot of research activity in Ghana and Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda amongst others. Understandably, there are historic ties and the benefit of a common language, as well as the comparative ease of collaboration, with highly regarded academic institutions generating their own research. But there is also a danger, in the context of ‘no one left behind’, of leaving a whole country behind. Niger is one of two countries (with Burkina Faso) identified as having high water stress (>0.8), agricultural GDP more than 20% combined with low income. The challenges are vast and complex, and there is a need for strong collaborations and good science. So I was pleasantly surprised on one day of the UNC Water and Health conference, to find that Niger came up in almost every session!

In the morning, the IRC/Hilton Foundation session on District-based initiatives for achieving SDG6 shared experiences from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Ethiopia. Niger and Mali were included, though as the work is still in the early stages there was no specific feedback from either country. This study looks specifically at leveraging partnerships and building capacity at District level. Niger is going through a process of decentralisation which makes Mayors at commune level responsible for water and sanitation provision with very few resources, while technical departments for these remain at District level and above. The progress of this study should be interesting to follow.

Another presentation was on assessing conflict in water resources projects. We saw photos of a typical water point in rural Niger – a concrete-lined large diameter open well with a walled apron and blue painted pulley system. Clearly heavily used, there was potential for conflict between the sedentary Hausa families drawing water for domestic use and semi-nomadic Fulani with their herds of cattle, sheep and goats. In the cases that were studied, no conflict was recorded. While it can and does happen, primarily around grazing rights and agricultural land between pastoralists and agriculturalists, my experience is that Nigeriens are masters of finding peaceful solutions.

Luis Andres from the World Bank presented some results from studies in 18 countries (WASH Poverty Diagnostic Initiative) with a focus on Niger in his presentation. Poor people are 2-3 times more likely to be stunted, which is a risk factor associated with 53% of infectious disease-related deaths. Of four dimensions that can prevent malnutrition in the UNICEF framework (adequate food, care, WASH and healthcare), 66% of children in Niger lacked all four of these. Clearly there is much to be done to improve access to WASH, healthcare and food for all children in Niger. The study also found that the impact of combined factors is more than the sum of the parts, for example WASH plus healthcare gives an overall reduction in stunting of more than WASH and healthcare separately.

The final presentation was looking at the sustainability of a USAID-funded WASH Programme in West Africa (Niger, Burkina and Ghana). A series of questions across institutional, technical, social, environmental and financial factors enabled sustainability scores for each factor to be calculated. Four surveys between August 2016 and September 2017 showed changes over a one-year timeframe. Scores for Niger were good, but with a notable change in the rainy season. Without further detail on the questions it’s difficult to delve into further analysis, but Niger has a clear policy for the sustainability of water systems through delegated management.

There is so much more I could write about this incredible country. The statistics tell one story, but not the whole reality. Let’s not undermine with our narrative the efforts of millions of Nigeriens working towards a better future for their children.

Susie Goodall is a Research Associate at WEDC, Loughborough University.