THE pictures are wrenching. A nomad holds an infant aloft, its gaunt head lolling dangerously, its matchstick limbs akimbo. A father asks God to forgive him for weeping publicly; he has just buried his son. A child in an emergency clinic awakens from a hunger-induced stupor only to moan and weep from the pain of his starvation-induced skin sores.
Yet here it is again, far smaller in scale, yet replete with images of stick-thin children with hunger-swollen bellies clinging to bony, flat-breasted mothers. Once again there is the question: what causes these calamities that invariably afflict the world's poorest corners?
The immediate cause is certainly known. Locust swarms and poor rains last year wiped out much of the nation's harvest and caused grain prices to triple. But when misfortunes strike other countries, they can help their people, with planning, with resources and by seeking aid from abroad. So what has gone so terribly wrong in Niger?
For decades famine was seen largely as a consequence of bad political leadership. Food scarcity in Ethiopia in the 1980's had natural causes, but its transformation into a deadly famine came to be understood as mostly man-made, the result of a Stalinist regime's collectivist ideology and its pursuit of victory over insurgents without regard to the well-being of its people. It seemed a neat illustration of the development the economist Amartya Sen's dictum: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."
But that does not explain Niger's problem. Niger is a democracy. It has been one since 1999, when it made the transition to multiparty democracy and constitutional rule after a decade of turmoil. It has also made, in part at least, the painful transition from a centralized, state-run economy to a market-driven one, earning praise and ultimately relief from about half of its estimated $1.6 billion in foreign debt from the World Bank.
Yet Niger still earns a horrifically high score on the index of human misery compiled by the United Nations Development Program, which lists it as the second least developed nation in the world, just ahead of Sierra Leone.
More than 25 percent of its children die before their fifth birthdays. Those who survive go on to scrape a meager existence from a harsh, arid savanna that is just barely suitable for farming and cattle grazing, yet must feed 12 million people. Cyclical droughts and chronic hunger are a way of life. Life expectancy tops out at 46 years.
Nor is Niger alone in its troubles. Of the 25 countries at the bottom of the development list, all but two are in Africa. Niger's food crisis - it is not, despite news reports, a famine yet - is not even the worst on the continent. Similar problems, involving even larger numbers, exist in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Darfur and elsewhere.
Far from ignoring or playing down its troubles, Niger's government, in cooperation with international aid agencies, sounded the alarm back in November. It provided subsidized grain and other aid from its own stocks, and has apparently made every effort to avert disaster. The world simply failed to respond, leaving the government unable to mount a sufficient aid campaign.
"The world has not noticed," said Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to the Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general. "When you get a crisis of this kind in a little known, landlocked country, which is Francophone and hard to reach, the inability to mobilize and galvanize sufficient support in a timely way is huge."
Of $16 million requested by the United Nations in an appeal for aid, less than a third had been received until about a week ago, when images of starving children began appearing on television. Food distribution is well under way, but precious time was lost, Mr. Malloch Brown said.
Niger and its neighbors are textbook cases of what the Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs calls "the poverty trap."
"When poverty is extreme," Mr. Sachs wrote in his recent book, "The End of Poverty," "the poor do not have the ability - by themselves - to get out of the mess."