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Can Text Messages Save Lives in Niger?

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Niger is on the brink of what will be a major catastrophe if the world does not act now. As part of Concern Worldwide's Emergency Response Team, I am no stranger to crises: that is why I was sent to Niger on January 10, just two days before the Haiti earthquake.

Millet is the crop that keeps most people alive here. The majority of the country's population of 15.2 million lives by farming or herding livestock -- without rain, they do not earn enough income to get by or grow enough food to eat. The rains last year were erratic, when they came at all. That caused widespread crop failures and 60 percent of the country's population is now facing hunger. Unless immediate action is taken, close to 378,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition.

A week after I arrived here, I got a call from Haiti from the Head of Concern's Emergency Unit, saying they were in desperate need of extra hands. But he and I agreed that I needed to stay in Niger. I told him, "The crisis here is going to be big, too. And in just a few months, it's likely that this team will also be in serious need of emergency reinforcements to respond."

Niger suffered a major food crisis in 2005 that claimed thousands of children's lives. No one wants to relive that tragedy. This time around, aid agencies, international partners and local government are more prepared.

Concern has already launched a response, including an innovative program using mobile phone technology and text messages to distribute emergency cash to the most vulnerable women in 160 villages. Concern is also doing "manual" cash transfers as part of pioneering, side-by-side research to document the effectiveness of each method.

This is groundbreaking -- the first time such mobile emergency cash transfers have ever been used in Niger, and the first time they have ever been used in a French-speaking African country. A code is delivered via text message to each recipient, which they can redeem for cash at mobile dispensing agents operated by telecommunications service provider ZAIN and their newly introduced cash transfer technology, ZAP.

Agaycha Awikguini, a 50-year-old widow receives her first emergency cash transfer from Concern.


Today, I drove for two-and-a-half hours to a remote village called Ourhamizan to see this program in action. A crowd of women were waiting for our arrival. These women, no matter how poor, or what they have gone through, always come with pride and dignity, dressed in clothes full of color. Today, we distributed special identification cards for each of the 13,000 women who will benefit from our cash transfer program -- they have no other form of official ID. (I will save the story of how we took 13,000 photos in remote villages for my next blog!) Each woman also received 20,000 CFA (approximately $42), which is enough for an average-size family to buy food for a month.

The women accepted the money and ID cards with smiles and thank you's -- but they seemed subdued, which worried me. This was supposed to be the difference between eating and not eating for the next month. My mind was racing: maybe the money was not enough, maybe we targeted the wrong people, maybe all the planning and days at that desk we got it wrong? And then I saw that under a tree, about 100 meters down the road, 30 women were gathered, full of excitement and giggling like schoolgirls as they compared ID cards. This was the first time most of them had ever seen a photograph of themselves! I learned that their village chief had asked them to be on their best behavior while they received their money. But as soon as they were out of his sight, they let loose and showed their excitement, eagerly talking about their trip to the market tomorrow and how they would now be able to buy what their families needed most.

The good news is that we are reaching these women early -- giving them the resources to buy food for their families before hunger reaches emergency level. But we are facing huge challenges: despite all our efforts, the world needs to act now to prevent Niger from spiraling into a catastrophe.