HAMBURG, Germany — Ranking as one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita, with a 35% literacy rate and annual population growth of close to 4%, Niger faces several challenges. Friends of Niger, an NGO founded by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, works to advocate and educate about Niger while supporting the people locally.
The Grant Process
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Amy Wilson, the current president of the organization, speaks about the progression of Friends of Niger’s mission. While it started as a means to link people with connections to Niger, involving those who have done social work on the ground, it has evolved into an organized grant system that provides funds and fiscal sponsorship for community projects that align with the organization’s guidelines.
The Board of Friends of Niger believes that “there [are]a lot of small groups that could use a little bit of support and do significant things.” Friends of Niger’s grant process reflects its core values of capacity building and investment in the community. Grants range from $500 to $5,000 and are allocated to applicants that fulfill the eligibility criteria. Welcomed applicants are schools, clinics and nonprofits that have no associations with terrorism. Friends of Niger prioritizes projects that resolve a particular need within a community, bring advantages to many people and are likely to see success in the future, among other attributes.
Lack of Employment Opportunities
Mary Abrams, a board member of Friend of Niger, tells The Borgen Project about the dire lack of employment opportunities in Niger. She says young children are told that receiving education will solve everything, yet “you have all these young people who are educated and they don’t have jobs.”
There are many well-educated and highly skilled yet unemployed young people in Niger, yet many are enduring poverty and looking to leave Niger in search of opportunities. Abrams believes that Niger stands as a “missed opportunity” as the country possesses much potential.
The lack of insight into Niger’s potential is not only harmful to the country’s economic situation but also presents a large opportunity cost for the rest of the world with vast unfulfilled potential. Yet, when western countries provided large amounts of financial aid to Niger, the lack of an organized government led to high-level corruption, harming the economic situation of those on the very low end of income.
Rather than providing a large influx of cash, Friends of Niger opted for the grant system in which they could supervise the spending of these small grants.
The education system in Niger is weak. According to the World Bank, in 2020, Niger spent just 3.8% of its GDP on education. The benchmark for GDP expenditure on education should be between 4% and 6% at minimum. The World Bank highlights that the literacy rate of males aged 15-24 stood at 51% in 2018 but, for females in this age group, this rate stood at 36%.
Friends of Niger has facilitated the building of classrooms through its grant system. Abrams says “the classrooms on the surface don’t seem sustainable, but… [they’re] a real morale boost for the communities.” The classrooms provide a place for children to receive an education. “They’re fast. They engage the community. They’re showing our values,” Abrams states.
Reducing Child Marriage and Benefiting Incarcerated Youth
Improving education attainment rates in Niger could positively benefit the entire country, especially girls. According to UNICEF, in 2018, Niger had the “highest rates of child marriage in the world,” with three out of every four girls married before 18 and one in four married before 15. UNICEF says that bringing an end to child marriage in Niger could save the country $25 billion by 2030.
Abrams says it is encouraging to see Nigeriens “taking an active role in how development happens in their country.” In another project supported by Friends of Niger, an organization provided vocational training for incarcerated youth. For a few hours each day, the vocational training program teaches incarcerated youth how to sew, repair motorcycles and do carpentry and metalworking. After the program completion and the serving of their sentences, the organization helps these young people to secure jobs. The program addresses the need for skilled labor, provides legal income-generating opportunities and reduces recidivism.
Governmental Intervention and International Partnership
In 2021, Nigerien President Bazoum made a declaration to prioritize educational reform in the country. UNICEF is supporting Niger’s educational reform process, beginning with the reconstruction of “hut classrooms” that burnt down due to a fire that broke out at an elementary school, leading to the deaths of 20 children.
Moreover, the EU as one of the primary donors to Niger continues to raise awareness of the volatility in Niger and the crucial need for funding to address humanitarian challenges. Yet, more global support and aid are crucial to sustainably improve Niger’s situation. As the world grapples with a series of historic shocks, including a pandemic, a newly emerged European war and an intercontinental energy crisis, leaders tend to concentrate their resources on their own domestic agendas.
However, as stressed by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in the Economic and Social Council segment on operational activities for development in New York in May 2022, “In a world of crisis, rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is more important than ever.”
Despite multiple efforts aiming to better the political, economic and humanitarian situation in Niger, the jihadist threat, high population growth and natural disasters require the world to accelerate aid efforts in Niger. Long-term, sustainable improvement is only possible if the Nigerien government, organizations and the international community all join forces to tackle the challenges faced by people in Niger. Friends of Niger stands as a role model for its efforts to promote development that benefits the masses in a sustainable, effective and morale-boosting manner.
– Pauline Luetzenkirchen
Photo: Courtesy of Friends of Niger