OSLO, Norway, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Norway said this week it is donating $168 million to help finance efforts to relieve the food crisis in North Africa's semi-arid Sahel region.
Norway's donation to the United Nations' World Food Program comes at a time when U.N. officials say 1.1 million children in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and neighboring states are at risk of severe acute malnutrition due to high food prices, drought and famine.
"The financial crisis and extreme weather events have created uncertainty about food prices and access to food," Norwegian Minister of International Development Heikki Holmas said Monday. "We hope this agreement will enable us, together with WFP, to increase certainty and predictability."
Holmas said the food crisis in the semi-arid Sahel belt -- the third in 10 years -- is hitting women and children the hardest.
"I met a number of them when I visited Niger earlier this year," he said. "WFP is doing a fantastic job to fight hunger and malnutrition. It is one of the most effective humanitarian organizations."
WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said the funding provided by Norway will be used to provide emergency relief, including access to nutritionally appropriate food and disaster risk reduction.
The new money comes in addition to the approximately $17 million Norway provides annually to the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.
"WFP is one of our most important humanitarian partners, I have deep respect for its ability and capacity to deliver emergency relief on a large scale in difficult and often dangerous situations, such as in Syria, Mali, Somalia and South Sudan," Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store added.
"Just as important as its emergency relief is WFP's work on improving food security and preventing crises and accelerating progress toward (U.N. Millennium Development Goal No. 1): eradicating extreme poverty and hunger."
Cousin accepted the contribution while on a two-day to Norway that included meetings with Store and Holmas as well as with Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Parliament.
"As WFP is entirely dependent on voluntary funds, we are especially grateful for Norway's reliable and flexible funding," she said. "Model humanitarian donors like Norway help us provide humanitarian assistance quickly -- for example to people in the Sahel and Horn of Africa -- and support the recovery of communities facing recurring crises."
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported this summer the food situation was especially precarious in Mali as a plague of locusts in the north was spreading and threatening agricultural production in the rest of the country.
The food crisis was also being further compounded by continued instability and insecurity caused by violence in the north, where fighting between government forces and Tuareg rebels broke out in January.
Those clashes, as well as political instability triggered by a March military coup, have led to the displacement of an estimated 440,000 people in Mali.
The U.N. agency said last month it had asked for $213 million to provide "life-saving projects" in Mali this year but less than half that amount had been provided.