Yahoo! News -- Imagine if your local fire department had to petition the mayor for money every time it needed water to douse a raging fire. That's the predicament faced by anguished humanitarian aid workers when they seek to save lives but have no funds to pay for the water - or medicine, shelter, or food - urgently needed to put out a fire.
Niger is but the latest example of this lethal predicament. Last year, a locust invasion devoured its crops. What the locusts didn't eat, a drought then scorched. For one of the world's poorest countries, already plagued by environmental degradation, this twin calamity is catastrophic.
Immediate aid is needed to keep 2.5 million people alive. Nearly a third of Niger's population is threatened by hunger - and about 800,000 children younger than 5 have empty bellies.
Nine months ago, Niger and the United Nations warned of an impending crisis. In May, the U.N. appealed to international donors for $16 million in emergency aid. The response: near-deafening silence.
Only now has the world at last woken up to the reality that thousands of children in Niger could soon die. Once again, it has taken horrific images of starving children to do so. This crisis could have been averted had political will and resources been available early on. We could have saved children from malnourishment for as little as $1 per child per day. Now it will cost many times more. Aid agencies are racing against time to save lives. But they may be too late, especially for the young children.
Niger's food shortage is acute but far from unique. Across the Sahel, the twin plagues of locusts and drought have left 2.5 million people at risk in Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso. Broad swaths of southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and southern Africa also face serious food shortages. We must act now in these countries, too.
Let us learn from the tragedy in Niger. Early funding and early action save lives and help prevent a deadly spiral of disease, hunger and displacement from spinning out of control.
In recent years, however, nearly half of all global humanitarian funding has come in the last quarter of the year. These delays are deadly. So, too, is the absence of a predictable pool of money to draw upon immediately in an emergency. Again, think what would happen if your local fire department had to petition for money before turning on the fire hose.
We can and must do better. To that end, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed a 10-fold increase in the U.N.'s emergency fund to enable aid agencies to jump-start operations. This ramped-up $500 million grant would save both money and lives, particularly in forgotten crises such as Congo, Chad or Eritrea.
Focusing attention on these crises is not easy. Too often, it takes horrific stories or images to shock us out of complacency.
I am convinced, however, that people do respond when they know how. To that end, we must shorten the distance between crisis and consciousness, awareness and action. And we must end the tyranny of complacency that has consigned millions of people to this dehumanizing existence.
Humanitarian aid can make a lifesaving difference for so many, so quickly, for so little cost, in these acute crises. The people of Niger know this: That's why many of Niger's citizens, the poorest of the world's poor, have donated to a national fund to assist their less-fortunate neighbors.
Their generosity also transcends borders. When the tsunami struck Asia, the people of Niger opened their hearts and wallets. Niger sent $250,000 to the victims - this in a country where the average income is less than $1 a day.
At a time of unprecedented global prosperity, cannot the rich nations do as much for defenseless, starving children?