In Africa, millions of people survive by their livestock. Yet veterinary care is often insufficiently available. When farmers lose their herds to disease, drought or conflict, they lose everything: their pride, their culture, their savings and their livelihood. By helping to care for livestock and improve production, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium supports local populations in their struggle against hunger and poverty.

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US ambassador visits Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium in Niger

In September 2012, David J. Lane, US ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome, visited the Vétérinaires Sans Frontières 'Likes' project in Niger. "What you are doing here is fantastic," he commented at the end of his visit. By optimising animal health care and encouraging farmers to restore pastures, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières is limiting the losses that livestock farmers suffer due to mortality or low price sales during crisis situations.

According to the Nigerien government, the department of Tera, to the north-west of Niamey, is extremely vulnerable as regards food security. Livestock farmers are struggling to recover from recent droughts and the food crises. Vétérinaires Sans Frontières is striving to help these people regain control of their lives.

How does the NGO support these people? By stimulating small businesses, including fodder crop production and pasture restoration. Thus, Vétérinaires Sans Frontières is promoting the production of Echinocloa stagnina (bourgou) on the banks of the Niger River. This aquatic plant is a source of food for livestock, and may also be sold. In addition, families are paid in return for restoring degraded land, that way they can invest in their own livelihoods, such as the purchase of grain, or in some form of economic activity. Some households buy goats for reproduction or for their milk, others run small businesses.

Lane wrote in his blog: "What I saw is a recent food security concept - resilience is the buzzword - coming to life in the field. For years Niger has been snared in persistent drought and the inability to produce enough food for its population, and the cycle has thus far shown few signs of stopping. Droughts and subsequent humanitarian emergencies in 2005, 2010, and now 2012, have left Nigeriens less and less prepared for the next, inevitable crisis. This time, aid organizations are making a conscious effort to break that cycle by combining emergency support with longer-term development objectives. The resilience efforts I saw in Niger go beyond immediate food aid and fight the root causes of the current crisis by laying a foundation to better prepare communities for the next one."

"In Niger, livestock is often the most important thing for a family."

Vétérinaires Sans Frontières is also supporting two private veterinarians to develop a local veterinary network, including training some 50 villagers to assist them as community animal health workers, thus ensuring that animals can receive care in remote villages.

"In Niger, livestock are often the most valuable asset a family owns. In addition to being a source of food, they are a valuable cash asset. And yet, when small farmers don't grow enough food in a given season - as has happened in this most recent drought - families tend to sell their livestock to purchase food, which may satisfy their immediate needs but leaves them that much more vulnerable the next time hunger strikes. With this in mind, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium, and the Nigerien government have joined forces to train community animal health workers to ensure healthier livestock and expand each family's holdings. I visited one of these training centers, "graduating" a handful of community animal health workers from their first course on oral medicines. Each community animal health worker I met is now responsible for administering needed support to farmers within a 10-kilometer radius. They each received initial packs of medicines, which they will sell to farmers - keeping the net cash they receive as their salary. This "for-local-profit" structure makes the program ultimately self-perpetuating, benefiting the community animal health workers in proportion to how well they provide for their community.

Crucially, this project ensures that families' livestock will be healthier after a crisis. While the emphasis in a traditional emergency response program is on feeding the people - not the animals - this coordinated effort works to ensure the survival of Nigeriens' most valuable asset. Because once the crisis is over, these people will need their animals to survive."

The second phase of the emergency project, funded by USAID, started in January 2012 and will finish at the end of May 2013.

Read the blog of David J. Lane