Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Droughts and flooding are not the only causes of food crises. Politics and economics often play major roles. A case in point is the West African nation of Niger. In 2005, untold numbers of children died of malnutrition there even though the country did not suffer an especially bad harvest. Reporter Daivd Hehct has investigated the causes of Niger's food trouble. He finds that the roots of the crisis extended a long way from where people went hungry.

DAVID HECHT: In 2005, foreign journalists descended on Niger. They broadcast to the world images that have become all too familiar from Africa; children with hollow cheeks, bloated bellies and arms like sticks.

MALE REPORTER: Niger's problem now the experts say is that the country is poor �

FEMALE REPORTER: France's foreign minister said in Niger, "People need aid, not declarations of summits."

MALE REPORTER: Niger in this terrible time is always another child fighting to stay alive.

HECHT: There remains a debate about just how severe Niger's food crisis was. Some called it a famine. Others, particularly Niger's government, said the crisis was vastly overblown. The cause of the food shortage has also been a point of contention. Some blamed locusts and poor rains, but it turns out at least some of the reasons can be traced beyond Niger's borders, to that country's neighbor, Nigeria. The two countries meet at bustling border tows like Jibiya, where traders exchange corn, millet and beans as well as livestock. Niger and Nigeria may have similar names but they are very different countries. Niger to the north is vastly populated and mostly desert. Nigeria to the south is far more crowded and most of its land is arable.

ALHADJI TENIR MUSAMOTA: [Speaking foreign language]

HECHT: Trader Alhadji Tenir Musamota says foods usually flows north across the borders from fertile Nigeria to arid Niger. But when Nigeria suffers a bad harvest, he says food can flow the other way around.

MUSAMOTA: [Translation] They say about four years back something like this happened. Because the rainfall was not much here in Nigeria but over there they had good rainfall and they had a good harvest. So they crossed over and buy millet and corn to bring down here.

HECHT: In other words, Musamota and other traders say in 2005 it was Nigeria not Niger that had the bad harvest. So Nigeria bought food from Niger and because Nigeria is much wealthier than its neighbor, Nigeria is one of the world's top oil exporters it pushed up prices so much so that many people in Niger couldn't afford the food produced in their own country. Food experts now generally acknowledge that this one of the underlying causes of Niger's food crisis. But those experts didn't see it at the time. Marcus Prior is a spokesman for the World Food Program. He was in Niger in 2005.

MARCUS PRIOR: The sudden spike in food prices did take a lot of people by surprise. One of the reasons for which was that at the time there was not a particularly good understanding of the way Niger's and the sub region's markets actually worked.

HECHT: Because aid agencies didn't understand what was causing the fluctuation in food prices and food supplies, some may have inadvertently worsened the problem. Mohammed Sabo Nanono is a prominent farmer in the northern Nigerian City of Kano. He says at the time of Niger's food crisis, some of aid officials contacted him. They wanted to buy food from him and send it to Niger.

MOHAMMED SABO NANONO: They brought cash. I organized the transportation, the grains, everything. And off they went, and they crossed the border.

HECHT: But Nanono says there were two problems with this plan. First, aid officials were unprepared for the corruption that would siphon off food meant for the hungry.

NANONO: They were able only to witness the distribution of ten percent. So 90 percent was with the Niger officials.

HECHT: Second, Nanono says sending his food to Niger did nothing to address the underlying cause of its food shortage that is Nigeria's willingness to pay high prices for Niger's food. This point was driven home when he received a surreal phone call. He says it was from government officials in Niger who offered to resell him the very food he had sold to the aid organization.

NANONO: They wanted to bring back this thing and sell it in Kano.

HECHT: The same food?

NANONO: The same food.

HECHT: So the same food that you sold?

NANONO: Exactly.

HECHT: Because it's just going the pockets of government officials?

NANONO: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I told them I'm not interested.

HECHT: In buying your own food?

NANONO: In buying my own food. You see that is the problem. The underlying issue is corruption.

HECHT: Corruption and the law of supply and demand, because when food is scarce, the prices go up and the food goes to those who can afford it. In fact, in 2005, when babies were starving in Niger, chickens in Nigeria were well fed. It was widely reported that Nigerian poultry farmers were even buying up the food aid sent to Niger because they could pay higher prices for it. Food flows to where the money is. With these kinds of problems plaguing responses to many food emergencies, some aid agencies are trying a radically new approach. Rather than giving food to the hungry, they're giving people cash. Jonathan Brass is with the aid organization Oxfam.

JONATHAN BRASS: What we end up doing by providing cash is creating that demand for food, so local traders will ensure that there's food in those areas to be able to take advantage of the cash in that area.

HECHT: He says that with cash, or in some cases food vouchers, poor people can buy food from the markets that already exist. So aid organizations don't have to create parallel food distribution systems. Plus the added cash can encourage local farmers to increase production. Proponents of this strategy argue it should be used to head off the current crisis brewing in East Africa. Because not far from where people are going hungry, there are regions where food is plentiful. It's just no getting to those who need it. For The World, I'm David Hecht, Jibiya, Nigeria.

WERMAN: David Hecht's reporting was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.