DOUKOUKOUNEY, Niger - When the women of this village heard that free food was on the way, they were overjoyed that for the first time in months, they would not have to worry about how to feed their children.
"We have been hungry for more than a year," said Mariam Garba, 35, a mother of seven who was nursing a baby as she waited in line for the aid last week. "Many times I would sit down and think, 'How I am going to feed my children?' It kept me awake at night."
But what the women from Doukoukouney and neighboring villages received disappointed many of them.
Each family's ration was 220 pounds of cereal, 33 pounds of pulses, or edible seeds, and five quarts of cooking oil. Garba said some extended families have two wives, many children and grandparents. Her family, she said, consists of more than 30 people, but she is the only one registered to receive food aid.
"Now all the women are worried and complaining," she said, adding that the food she received would last only a few days. "They took just one woman in each family. She'll share the food, but I don't think it will be enough for the whole family."
Marcus Prior, spokesman for the World Food Program, said that the U.N. agency's distributions to villages such as Doukoukouney, near the southern city of Maradi, were based on village population and that the aid handed out should last a month. Each ration was designed for a family of seven, based on surveys of the average family size in Niger.
"The bottom line is that there should be enough food in the village, and in the traditional society of which we are speaking it will be shared around," Prior said. "In the long term, it should make its way to those who need it most. The important thing is that they are getting food now. Our biggest challenge is to get as many of those distributions done as quickly as possible."
As the first general free food deliveries began in recent days, some analysts argued that the United Nations, the Niger government and other humanitarian groups had misread the crisis, played it down and delayed too long in handing out aid desperately needed to stave off starvation amid rising food prices.
Niger, with much of its territory in the Sahara desert south of Algeria, relies heavily on subsistence agriculture. It is the second-poorest country after Sierra Leone, according to U.N. statistics, with 61 percent of its population living on less than $1 a day.
The slow response of international donors to the U.N. appeals had elicited an initial barrage of criticism. But many observers argue that it is the humanitarian agencies' failure to analyze the hunger problem and respond adequately that has contributed to the crisis.
These critics contend that even if donations had arrived sooner, the money probably would have been misspent because the key players - the Niger government, United Nations and other agencies - had their priorities wrong.
The Humanitarian Policy Group, an analytical unit at the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said fears that distributing free food would distort the market or harm long-term development "seem to have resulted in extreme reluctance to move from subsidized food to free food distribution."
A recent briefing paper by the group says the central strategy of the U.N. Flash Appeal in May appears to have been misconceived, based largely on providing subsidized food and fodder rather than giving out free food.
"Fears about creating dependency should not be a justification for failing to provide relief when it is needed," the paper says. "This is not just a case of donors failing to provide resources quickly enough. What we are seeing now is the normal tendency for different parts of the system to blame each other or even to deny that there is a crisis at all."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.