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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

Niger -- Daunting Development Challenges in the World's Poorest Muslim Country

Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick, Ambassador to Niger
Remarks to the Open Forum
Washington, DC
April 24, 2002

Opening Remarks and Introduction

Photo of Ambassador Barbro Owens-KirkpatrickThank you, Alan Lang, and thanks also to the co-sponsors of the Secretary’s Open Forum for giving me this chance to talk about Niger and its development challenges and future opportunities. This must be the first time that Niger -- one of Africa’s and the world’s least known countries -- has been featured at the Forum. Niger is a country of very poor but proud people, and their story is worth telling, and their future worthy of engaging in. I am glad to see several former U.S. Ambassadors to Niger here today, as well as Niger’s Ambassador to the U.S. and others connected to Niger, Africa and development issues. It testifies to the fact that Niger has gained many friends over the years among those that have lived and worked there. I hope you will all contribute actively to today’s discussion.

I would like our focus today to be on how the U.S. can help to dramatically accelerate growth and prosperity in extremely poor countries like Niger. This discussion is particularly timely because of President Bush’s recent announcement of the new "Compact for Development" entailing a huge increase in U.S. economic aid to poor countries, tying it to their willingness to create conditions that are more favorable especially to private sector growth. In addition to waging war on terrorism post-9/11, we are now also waging war on poverty. It makes good sense, since terrorism and poverty are clearly linked. The President also believes that the time has come to reassess traditional development approaches and to come up with creative new ways of attacking poverty and creating wealth in poor countries. Secretary of the Treasury O’Neill asked the U.S. Ambassadors to Africa last week to think big and bold and out of the box; to set ambitious goals, and most importantly, to produce results. Let’s take a look at Niger and see what we can learn from that country’s experience. Despite billions of dollars in foreign aid during 40 years of independence, Niger remains the world’s poorest Muslim country and next to the last on the UN’s index for human development.

What is Happening in Niger; Why has this Country not Developed?
iger is a predominantly Muslim country (95%) with about 11 million people living mostly in rural villages and surviving on subsistence agriculture or as nomad herders. The country is huge and surrounded by seven neighbors. It is located at the edge of the Sahara desert and is sandwiched between Algeria and Libya to the north and Nigeria to the south. More than 50% of the population is under age 15, but fewer than 30% of children attend school. About 14% of the population read and write, even fewer among women. Survival is a daily challenge -- over 30% of the kids die before the age of 5 years, and of those who survive, half are malnourished. A Nigerien child dies every 3 minutes and 40 seconds, according to UNICEF. The high infant mortality rate has led to increased birth rates as destitute families have more children hoping that some will survive. Nigerien women average 7.5 live births over their reproductive lives, one of the highest rates in the world. AIDS prevalence is rapidly growing. Almost half of Niger’s national budget comes from foreign assistance. The rural population is extremely isolated and most have never seen or heard of a life better or different than their own. The government’s lack of capacity to patrol its borders and vast territory make Niger is a popular transit route for arms, and drug and people traffickers. It is also a perfect hiding place for bandits and terrorists. In the south, violence and religious extremism threaten to invade from Nigeria. No one really knows who is coming and going in Niger. The government would like to know, but lacks the means to improve border controls and internal security. Niger has lined up strongly with us in the international coalition against terrorism.

After a decade of military coups and political and economic upheaval, Niger returned to democracy in 1999, and the country is on an upward course. The current President Tandja Mamadou is a model African leader, modest and unassuming and more interested in promoting rural development and women’s rights than in his own personal power. Thanks to a young and dynamic Finance Minister, USAID-trained I might add, Niger succeeded in getting economic stabilization agreements with both the IMF and the World Bank within a year of the country’s return to democracy. The government is committed to good governance, sound economic policies and the rule of law. Niger is the world’s third largest uranium producer but the low world market demand and prices limit this as an income source. Several oil companies are prospecting in Niger and some are optimistic that economically viable production will be possible in the next five years. There is potential for exports of agricultural products -- gum arabic, beef and other live stock -- to Nigeria and the U.S. There is significant potential for adventure tourism in the north which is littered with dinosaur bones and ancient rock art and has some of the world’s most spectacular desert scenery. The 100 million year old 42 foot crocodile skeleton "Supercroc" recently unveiled by National Geographic comes from the north of Niger. It used to eat dinosaurs for breakfast. I encourage you to go and see it.

There are many reasons why Niger ended up at the bottom of the development index. The country has a past history of selfish leaders disinterested in the well being of their people, military coups and corruption, and poor government coordination of donor activities. Other key factors that have retarded progress include poor coordination among the donors themselves; not enough of what USAID calls local "buy in," resulting in foreigners rather than the Africans running the projects; and a high degree of resistance to change in a country with its own unique mix of ancient traditions, role definitions, power arrangements, and ethnic rivalries. Add to this the extreme isolation of the population, few means of communication and information, a weak judiciary, and a very small formal economy. The list could go on. The important thing, however, is that none of these problems are insurmountable if there is will to overcome them. Much progress has already been made under the current Nigerien government. Under the Tandja Government there has probably never been a better moment for Niger to make serious and sustainable progress. There are many very practical, doable, and mostly inexpensive ways to create an environment more receptive to change and prosperity creation. I will get to those in a minute.

Why should we care about Niger?
Why not just ignore it and focus our limited resources on the countries that count, like Nigeria, a major source of our oil imports? Naturally, we have a stake in the success of Nigeria’s democracy and stability. But why Niger?

I believe that U.S. foreign policy should be inclusive rather than exclusive and we should embrace democracies, big or small. Obviously, we have strategic interests and priorities, but as the only superpower we should also have something to offer to the smaller countries that are struggling and doing the right things. Especially small Muslim countries that live in dangerous neighborhoods. We should help countries that are on our team. That will help them stay on our team. There is no need for huge amounts of money. It is more important how we spend than how much we spend.

Here are some thoughts on what we should do to help countries like Niger:

American engagement is key. We Americans need to engage more directly on the ground. The key to successful development is to work together as a team. Writing a check does not produce development if no one shows up on the scene to help put the money to work. One of the reasons that the Peace Corps is so successful is because of the direct people-to-people approach of this program. We have about 100 volunteers in Niger and a total of 2800 volunteers have served in Niger over the years. It is one of the most effective and popular development programs in the country. President Bush’s decision to double the Peace Corps is excellent, but we also need to deploy more U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) people, more American entrepreneurs, more Americans non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and more volunteers.

Deploy at least one USAID officer to the poorest countries. We need to rethink the organization of USAID human resources in the field. We need to move away from the simplistic dichotomy of either having a full-fledged USAID Mission or none at all, of presence versus non-presence countries. Instead we should put in place now a program placing a lean, mean USAID attache presence in Embassies without a USAID presence – above all in the poorest countries. They will provide vital guidance to ambassadors, ensure that development assistance efforts have institutional memory, and permit a rapid scaling up of assistance in times of democratic opportunity or crisis. Also, very importantly, countries that have no USAID presence now get less support to combat HIV/AIDS. This inequity must end and all African countries get the full benefit of USAID support to deal effectively with this epidemic. The Embassy in Niger has had to establish a State Department-funded development coordination office to deal with the large number of development issues that continue to dominate our bilateral agenda with Niger. Poverty issues have not gone away just because USAID has left. USAID has closed its missions in six of the ten poorest countries in the world over the past decade, including Niger. Although we enjoy excellent relations with our AID colleagues and they have tried to help us generate support for Niger, from a humanitarian standpoint, how can we reasonably explain the non-presence of USAID in the world’s poorest Muslim country? And now, in the context of the War on Terrorism, how can we justify that absence?

We need a credible democracy dividend. We are very quick to respond to bad news, and often slow to react to good news. Niger is an example. It takes the U.S. 5 minutes to cut bilateral aid after a military coup, but it seems to take 5 years to restore assistance to a legitimately elected government. The few resources that we have mobilized for Niger since its return to democracy two and a half years ago, we have had to fight for tooth and nail. We should have a credible democracy dividend for both large and small countries that embrace democratic principles. We should make it a bigger deal when a country returns to democracy!

More conversations needed -- Africans need to drive the development train and process of change. We need a more successful effort to put Africans in charge of their development and change. A major outreach campaign is needed to make this happen. We talk a lot to governments, not enough to the individuals and groups who are the real opinion leaders. I am talking about traditional chiefs, religious leaders, and even the grandmothers. An anti-AIDS campaign will not be effective in a Muslim country unless the influential religious leaders not only are onboard but in charge. Changes in child nutrition will not take root unless grandmothers agree and start running these projects themselves. I am serious about this. Grandmothers play an important role in African societies -- as they do in our own society -- and empowering them will help to accelerate development. Time and again in Niger, I see projects that are well intentioned but of limited value because we have failed to really bring onboard those players in society whom people listen to and follow. We need much more interaction, conversation and communication with African opinion leaders on the trade offs between tradition and change. If we agree on the goals, the success rate will be a lot higher.

Communications technology is a great instrument for development. In rural areas of Niger, extreme isolation is a huge impediment to development. How can people be mobilized for development and change it they have no image in their minds of what this change means and looks like? We should encourage NGOs and other delivery agents of development projects to routinely consider adding a communications element to their projects as a way of increasing the project’s chances of success. In Niger, several U.S. NGO’s including Africare are successfully adding rural radio stations as a complement to their food security projects. The radios can be used both to inform and mobilize support for the project, but are also used for many other educational and informational purposes that stimulate conversation and debate. Rural radios are a very effective tool to break especially women and youth out of their isolation. I like the idea that villages in the middle of the Sahara desert where almost no one reads and writes are hooked up to a global Worldspace satellite system! The potential for long distance digital learning is huge in the future and something the Americans should continue to play a lead role in. The same goes for Internet. We hope to soon help Niger liberalize its inadequate Internet system through a Leland Initiative. There is an enormous appetite not just for food but for information in Africa. An American cellphone company that came into Niger sold all 6000 phones in 3 days!

I would like to see Niger become the first country in the world where all development assistance is coordinated transparently on the Internet. If donors worked much more closely together to synchronize their efforts, we could gain important synergies that could dramatically improve results.

We still need basic human needs projects. In a country as extremely poor as Niger, we do need to continue to support basic human needs projects like food security and family health. A kid who is sick and hungry cannot learn. Our American NGOs like Africare, Care International, Helen Keller International, Catholic Relief Services and others are doing a great job in Niger managing a large USAID Food for Peace project focused on these areas.

Literacy is a huge issue. A major effort must obviously go into attacking the literacy problem. The World Bank made a major commitment to education during the annual meeting last weekend and that is a good thing. In extremely poor countries like Niger, where parents see no value in sending their kids to school, especially girls, we should help to add practical skills training in elementary schools that will generate an income for the family.

Focus on women, but don’t forget the men. We need to continue to focus on helping Africa’s women; they are key to Africa’s future development. But how can Niger and other developing countries develop if a large part of the male population is not productively engaged in the country’s economy? In Niger we propose to start a pilot project to provide unemployed young men between the age of 15 and 25 with training in a variety of practical skills that will help them gain an income and become productive members of the community. We hope to learn important lessons from this project that we can apply on a broader scale in the future.

In the end it’s all about private sector growth. Private sector development is absolutely critical for Niger’s and all other developing country’s ability to produce prosperity and reduce dependence on foreign aid. In Niger there’s virtually no capacity or indigenous resources to build up a vibrant private sector. Although AGOA eligible, Niger has been unable to take advantage so far of this law because the necessary certification procedures for textile exports into the U.S. are not yet in place. They desperately need on the ground technical assistance to make this happen. This is where the Millennium Fund envisioned in the President’s "Compact for Development" initiative comes in. Niger is the perfect candidate for the President’s initiatives, both in terms of need and merit.

The Compact promises greater accountability for both rich and poor nations. It calls for partnerships aimed at creating prosperity. Rich nations would increase their development assistance while poor nations would take the initiative to "walk the hard road of political, legal, and economic reform."

We will help countries that are democratic and that practice good governance. We will help countries that pursue sound economic policies and provide an open environment for private enterprise. We will help governments that crack down on corruption and meet a reasonable standard of probity and integrity. And we will help countries that assume responsibility for the stewardship of their own development and put in place policies aimed at reducing dependency on donors and increasing sustainability of economic growth, a reasonable standard of health care, and the opportunity for education.

How do we ensure that the President’s ambitious goal of doubling the size of the world’s poorest economies in a decade is actually accomplished? How should we spend the new Millennium Fund and what should be the delivery mechanisms? Given the uneven track record of traditional aid and delivery systems, it makes sense to dedicate this Fund entirely to private sector growth and have the U.S. private sector together with developing world entrepreneurs be the primary delivery mechanisms.

One approach would be to develop Private Sector Millennium Action Plans for each country that qualifies for the Millennium Fund. These would be tailor-made for each country. Ambitious goals would be set both in terms of creating a more hospitable environment for private sector activity as well as to launch specific investment projects. Teams of American entrepreneurs and other experts would be deployed to the country to assess the investment climate and devise and fast track a plan to remove obstacles or introduce incentives for private sector activity. Together with the local government and local entrepreneurs a strategy and timetable for implementation would be agreed. The team would also identify specific private sector projects and develop investment proposals for funding by local and foreign investors, with a portion of the financing provided by the Millennium Fund. The Fund would also pay for the deployment of retired American businessmen to work in the country providing hands on technical advice and training on setting up successful private enterprises. In many countries there is also a desperate need for a modern management training facility to teach entrepreneurial skills.

The Private Sector Action Plans should include an assessment of the country’s communications infrastructure and services specifically to aid private sector growth. One idea would be to develop horizontal and vertical web sites that would serve as a resource for American, African and other entrepreneurs to access information and interact on business related issues, for example, how to get financing or the latest tips on how to run a successful hotel business.

Americans are incredibly creative. It is this creativity that we need to unleash in the developing world. Our challenge is to share our insights with those who need it and to enable them to share ideas among each other. We can show our partners how to run successful businesses; we can help introduce U.S. technology, above all in information and communications.

In Africa, and in the poorest of poor nations around the world, we face a new national security imperative to invest in people, to implement partnerships aimed at achieving prosperity and to promote peace. The poorest countries individually may not be of great strategic importance to us, but collectively their poverty challenges the peace. When they do the right things they should find us a willing partner for their efforts to achieve prosperity. Every democratic country should be able to count on a minimum of U.S. support and recognition helping them to make democracy and our free market system succeed for their people.

In parts of Africa and elsewhere in the World, especially in newly democratic countries, many of the poor must wonder what went wrong, why democracy and free markets have brought them little. The U.S. is in a race against time in such countries around the globe and even at home, to help democratic governments prove to their people that they are better off now than they were before democracy and before free markets. In Niger, and in the poorest of other poor countries, the U.S. (and USAID) should, at the very least, show up for the race quickly when democratic governments step to the starting line.

It is even more important, as the President’s initiative suggests, that Americans realize our national security will be affected by the race for global prosperity. We are partners on a relay team, not lone runners. As the President made clear, help for poor nations is a challenge to our compassion and a source of instability. Forging Partnerships to achieve prosperity with poor nations, such as Niger, that are doing the right things, is not just charity, it is an investment in peace. It is in our vital national security interest to invest this money well. Thank you.

Question-and-Answer Segment:
Mr. Lang: Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, on behalf of the Secretary’s Open Forum I would like to thank you for that compelling and illuminating presentation. At this time I would like to open the floor to comments and questions.

Question: Thank you for your talk, Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick. My son, Jeremy, is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger. My question is what sort of democracy and governance programs do you have in place in order to create a contextual background for people so that they can branch out from there and handle all of this? What we observed from our short experience in West Africa is that in many instances there are a lot of terms that are bandied about that have to do with development, but there doesn’t seem to be any contextual background for people to work from. So things break down.

Ambassador Owens: It's a very good question. We have in Niger a program run by the National Democratic Institute. It’s a very good program. It is focused mainly on working with members of the National Assembly in Niger; this is the equivalent of their Parliament, to help them become a more effective body. The focus is particularly on trying to develop better relations between the elected members and the voters in the field and to promote civil society debate and conversation. The program has been very successful and we are optimistic that it will continue. That’s our main contribution in terms of programs. We, of course, have a continuous dialogue with the government and other stakeholders in Niger on different aspects of democracy. We have a cultural center that has a very large library that is put to good use. Lots of people visit and we have ample literature there on democracy issues. Those are our primary efforts.

Question: Ambassador, the first thing I’ll say is I agree with everything you’ve said. I’ve served in two countries from which USAID has departed, and it’s very upsetting as one who tried to develop programs. Ironically, in Niger, when I was there, USAID was almost dominant. It had been there a long time, but as you pointed, out it left and it has trouble getting back. I’m actually a USAID contractor now and I would like to sort of state the case for the defense and see what your reaction is.

Many of us in the State Department have criticized USAID for not being in the poorest countries, there is a kind of contradiction between having as their principle goal the elimination of poverty but not being in poor countries. When you probe USAID and say why aren’t you there, their defense is that they don’t have enough operating expense money and therefore they simply can’t manage it and as a result they came to the conclusion they should be in countries that seem set for sustainable development. So, either a country had a cue (sic) and they are able to get rid of them quickly that way or they are deemed not to be a good candidate for sustainable development. So, I think Niger loses on two counts. When you press them, they have two principal statements they make. One is that they don’t have enough operational expense money and that the department will not help them adequately to ask the Congress for that money. I don’t know if you care to comment on that or if you have any suggestions on how USAID can do it. So, on the one hand I agree with you and think you are absolutely right in what you have said. But I think at some point the State Department has to come to grips with USAID’s inability to get to Congress to give them money to run these programs. Therefore at some stage we have to move beyond criticizing AID and try to figure out how to help them. .

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: Thank you, Ambassador Bogosian. I think that we should lobby Congress on USAID’s behalf to get the substantial increase on the account. I also argue that we don’t always need a huge USAID presence in a country. Having no one cuts one out of the whole resource process and poses disadvantages in terms of being able to tap into available resources, to send in requests on a timely basis for the appropriate funding. So we have never actually argued in Embassy Niger that we need a return of the presence that USAID had before. It was a very large mission. We would like to have one or maybe two people there to serve as the link between the embassy and USAID here.

Question: I’m with National Democratic Institute (NDI) and we’re the organization that’s been working in Niger on the program that the Ambassador just referred to. The National Assembly is currently looking at the decentralization bill that will hopefully be passed soon. I wanted to see if you can just talk a little bit about this process and see what kind of role the embassy can play and what organizations like NDI can play. We want to try to really take up this opportunity which could really help build transparency in the Nigerian government through all the different levels from the local regional to the national levels. Thank you.

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: We are strong supporters of the decentralization effort in Niger. Clearly it is needed and especially in a country where such a large portion of the population lives out in the rural area. There has to be an empowerment of the communities outside of Naimey. It has been, however, a very slow process for the government to reach consensus with all the different political elements in Niger to reach agreement on the exact form and nature of this decentralization. Also there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of resources to actually kick off this decentralization plan because if you’re going to create local authorities, the local authorities need money. That has been a continuous challenge. So we’re supporting it in principle. We hope that it would go forward sometime this year and that this would also result in local elections, which Niger has not yet had. Local officials are still government appointees. So while we are watching this process unfold we will be working very closely with NDI and provide suggestions and ideas on how you could be more helpful.

Question: Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, I believe that regional integration is also important for stability the future of West Africa. Would you care to comment on what successes, if any, there have been in regional economic integration and perhaps the role of regional institutions. Thank you.

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: Because of the political and economic difficulties that Niger experienced for more than a decade before it switched on to democracy it was not an active player in many of these regional institutions and organizations. But now with a new government, the elected government, we are seeing a stronger relationship between this government and these institutions. I agree with you that regional institutions can be very, very important. We are supporting the role of bodies that can assist in stabilizing the region and coordinating peacekeeping actions by the Africans themselves and Niger is now poised, I think, for the first time to play a more important role in that regard. Niger used to have a very well trained and professional military and it’s well on the way to have it again and we have been able to restart the very active military relationship. We hope that Niger would be included in the future. They are very, very anxious to be included again in regional and international peacekeeping operations.

Question: I am here because my husband works for the State Department. I was one of those former Peace Corps Volunteers that you mentioned. I would like to just throw out a suggestion to you, given the number of suggestions and challenges that you have put out on the table today. That suggestion is that I think you have a tremendous untapped resource in people who have been former Peace Corps Volunteers in Niger. I’ll just use myself as an example. I got a Masters in Social Work when I came back. I got a MBA and there were people who went into the teaching professions but all of the people who have served have great sensitivity to and great appreciation for the richness of Niger as a country. I would just like to put that out as a possibility for you and other people to think of in terms of tapping into that resource. I would also say that if there’s anybody who is interested here in following up on that I would like to volunteer to look at what value there might be in further researching this as an idea.

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: It’s a terrific idea. In fact our current Peace Corps Director in Niger has been talking about the need to redeploy to Niger some of the former Peace Corps Volunteers drawing on that pool of 2,800 volunteers that has served in Niger. They could certainly be used and the experiences and the careers that they have had at this point could be a very useful asset for a country like Niger.

Question: First let me say I was very heartened to hear the things you said because I was also heartbroken when USAID moved out of Niger. I personally lived there for eight years, most of that time in villages of 4,000. I wanted to kind of pick up on something that the previous questioner said. It seems to me that probably most of the people in this room know that the Hausas are known far and wide as great traders and entrepreneurs. I’m not the right one but I would think that there might be people in your team of experts that you send to Niger who are also fluent in Hausas and know the culture much better than your typical businessman who could be sensitive to what kind of entrepreneurial opportunities exist there. I’m sure the talent is there. You need the right kind of skill set in the people that you send to be able to turn that in to something that works in the international scene.

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: I couldn’t agree more. If you have the knowledge of the culture and you have the languages obviously you are in a much better position to have meaningful conversations. That fits right into what I been emphasizing which is that we need to have much more conversation and interaction, not just with the government but with the people out in the field with civil society and those who influence people’s behavior and those who influence change.

Question: Good afternoon, Ambassador. I’d like to thank you for presenting on Niger today. I, too, am a former Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Niger and, interestingly enough, I was an English teacher. There was a time when I received information and could remain current on what was happening in Niger through an organization called Friends of Niger. I have not heard of much activity from that organization lately and I would like to know what is the status of Friends of Niger and are they still active in Niger and what are they doing?

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick: It's a good question. I know that Friends of Niger exists because I get a newsletter from time to time and I know that some of the former ambassadors are involved with Friends of Niger. Perhaps members of our audience may be able to provide more information…

Alan Lang: Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick on behalf of the Secretary’s Open Forum, I’d like to commend you for that superb and thought-provoking presentation. I’d like to present to you the Open Forum’s Distinguished Public Service Award in recognition of outstanding contributions to national and international affairs, and in appreciation for your participation in our Distinguished Lecture Series. Congratulations. This concludes this session of the Secretary’s Open Forum. [Applause]

Released on May 16, 2002

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