Khartoum, Sudan — The difficulty of doing humanitarian work in a highly political world has become tragically evident in the famine-stricken Ethiopian territory of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa.
According to Western relief workers on the scene, as much as one-third of the Eritrean population is currently in danger of starving to death as a result of a devastating, four-year drought.
But the American humanitarian aid community, in large part, has chosen to give a wide berth to Eritrea - even though the immense human need there is well known to it. Privately in most cases, publicly in others, relief officials say the geopolitical high seas around Eritrea are simply too dangerous to be navigated safely.
As a relief official who wishes to remain anonymous puts it, Eritrea's is a ''politically sticky'' famine.
What makes the famine ''political'' is the insurgency raging in Eritrea, Africa's longest-running war. It is a bitter conflict with strategic implications for superpower control of the Red Sea and the vital passage to Suez.
For 22 years, the Eritreans have been trying to win independence from what they term Ethiopian colonialism and oppression. Having first battled the royalist troops of Haile Selassie's empire, today the leftist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) ironically confronts the ''people's'' forces of Mengistu Haile Mariam's Marxist regime in Addis Ababa.
United States-Soviet competition in the region has added fuel to the fires of conflict. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, US-Ethiopia relations soured. The US closed its sophisticated Kagnew communications base in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, and turned off the spigot of equipment and funds provided for fighting the Eritrean rebels.
Today, $2 billion worth of Soviet arms have built Ethiopia's Army into Africa's second-largest fighting force, and an estimated 1,500 Russian advisers operate in the field alongside government troops against Eritrea's small guerrilla force.
Confronted by this highly charged political backdrop, most US aid groups have decided against providing any relief to the starving Eri-trean civilian population. Indeed, officials at the American Council for Voluntary Agencies, an umbrella organization of US relief groups, put the total value of private American famine-relief funds going to the government side in Ethiopia at more than $8 million annually vs. less than $900,000 for Eritrea and Tigre, another province where antigovernment insurgency rages.
This almost 9-to-1 ratio exists although as many or more people are starving in Eritrea and Tigre as are starving in government-held areas of Ethiopia. In Eritrea, 85 percent of the population is estimated to live in antigovernment areas.
Eritrean spokesmen - and even some American aid officials - call this disparity in aid scandalous. They charge that the US relief community has allowed political expediency to stand in the way of its humanitarian duty.
Some agency spokesmen deny that politics plays any role in their absence from Eritrea. They point instead to logistical problems, ''lack of information,'' and small budgets as the reasons for their hands-off policy toward famine conditions there.
However, most agencies contacted concede that political factors at least partially underlie their decisions to do no relief work or to conduct only limited programs in Eritrea. Several agencies - including the UN-sponsored World Food Program - refuse to work with nongovernmental bodies such as guerrilla movements, even if these groups offer the only organized access to stricken populations.
The most commonly offered explanation for eschewing work in Eritrea is the fear of antagonizing the Ethiopian government and jeopardizing existing projects in government-held areas.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) concedes that its large-scale relief efforts in Ethiopia and Eritrea cannot hope to reach most of the starving population because CRS works only through government channels.
''We're concerned that the government (of Ethiopia) would be very upset if we worked directly with the Eritreans,'' says Jim DeHarport of CRS's Africa Programs section. ''That could jeopardize our ongoing work in the rest of Ethiopia.''
''We try to work everywhere there is need,'' Mr. DeHarport adds. ''But when we discussed Eritrea work, it just seemed like the trade-off - helping in Eritrea vs. endangering our other work - was simply not worth it.''
Like other relief officials, DeHarport is frustrated by the politicization of humanitarian work. ''People are dying out there in Eritrea, but we just don't know how to get around these political roadblocks. I wish I knew what the answer was.''
Another organization that has avoided work in Eritrea, but that is now reconsidering, is California-based World Vision. Tesfa Alem, director of the New York office of the Eritrean Relief Committee, a territorial aid organization sponsored by the guerrilla EPLF, describes his experience with World Vision:
''Privately, World Vision told us they couldn't help because they didn't want to make the Ethiopian government angry,'' Mr. Tesfa recalls. ''But publicly they said it was because there were already many other organizations helping us..., which isn't true because very few humanitarian groups are helping us.''
Dr. John McMillin, World Vision's director of relief and rehabilitation, confirms that the key issue in his organization's denial of the Eritrean Relief Committee's request was the fear of invoking the displeasure of the Addis Ababa authorities.
''We have a long history in Ethiopia, with a large investment in staff and resources,'' Dr. McMillin explains. ''We had to make a choice and we tried to serve the most people in the best way.
''But looking back on it now,'' he adds, ''knowing what we know now about how serious the situation in Eritrea is, I'm not sure that I wouldn't make a different choice today. In fact, we're now reevaluating whether to start up some work in Eritrea.''
One organization that has opted for a strong Eritrea involvement is the Mennonite Central Committee. Recognizing, as associate executive secretary Edgar Stoesz puts it, ''that the neediest people are not reachable through government channels,'' the organization last year funneled $25,000 in aid to rebel-held Eritrea. ''It was not an easy choice,'' he noted. ''Potentially we're risking the wrath of the Ethiopian government.''
Indeed, five members of an Ethiopian organization associated with the Mennonites languish in government prisons, and Mr. Stoesz fears the possible effect his organization's Eritrea efforts may have on their condition.
''We're running a risk but frankly we felt we had no choice,'' he explains. ''Our mandate is to feed the hungry - wherever they are and despite any political controversy - and we intend to live up to that.''
Another political question confronting humanitarian relief workers in Eritrea is whether donated aid reaches the civilians in need or is diverted for military or political purposes.
Some agencies shy away from working with nongovernment or insurgent-sponsored relief organizations out of concern that the internal groups are ''political'' and may be less trustworthy than governments. Governments, they reason, have mandates to serve the public interest and will therefore be more responsible in delivering aid to civilians.
But this bias may be based more on political prejudices than on reality.
Several European observers here report that insofar as they can determine, famine aid administered by rebel groups in guerrilla zones is being distributed properly. This also is the conclusion of a report prepared late last year by field monitors for a consortium of aid groups (principally European). Most of these groups also conduct aid programs in conjunction with the Ethiopian government.
In fact, when evidence of abuse of aid has surfaced, it has usually pointed to government diversion or misuse of food and funds. European relief officials in Khartoum, in discussing the reliability of rebel groups as dispensers of aid, say they think insurgents would hesitate to divert aid for fear of alienating their few aid and publicity sources.
In Ethiopia, government authorities have for some time been accused of mis-appropriating famine relief aid to feed their own troops or to pay laborers. But these charges have so far not blocked aid from Western sources. EPLF-held Ethiopian prisoners told this reporter about food supplies donated by the European Community and the International Committee of the Red Cross that were used to pay laborers in lieu of salary.
Journalists on the scene have from time to time reported that EPLF fighters have captured Western-donated food stocks, intended for civilian use, from Ethiopian garrisons. This seemed to indicate that the military was diverting food aid for its own use.
For a long time, these and other reports were dismissed as hearsay by the EC, which conducted an audit of Ethiopian relief channels and found no evidence of abuse. Then, to the embarrassment of Ethiopian officials and Western donors alike, a senior official of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Abraha Haile Mikael, defected to Khartoum, Sudan, late last year with clear evidence of violations.
Abraha carried with him a letter sent by the relief commission in February 1983 to its regional offices ordering an urgent coverup of 15,000 tons of missing food aid - twice the amount, incidentally, received by the Eritreans in all of 1983.
The letter, as reprinted in a Dec. 4, 1983, London Sunday Times story by Peter Wilsher, was written in what seemed to be a panic. It noted that an auditor had just arrived in the country from the UN-sponsored World Food Program.
''We are aware,'' the letter warned, ''that as we have failed to act appropriately, the chances of the country securing further food aid could be adversely affected.'' The document then set out seven steps for limiting the damage, including making false registration entries and ''readjusting'' transport expenses.
At the time the scandal broke, the World Food Program indicated it would ''be looking very hard again (at Ethiopia), when we have studied the letter.'' Last week, at the organization's headquarters in Rome, spokesman Trevor Page said:
''It appears the whole problem was simply an accounting error; there doesn't appear to have been any fraud.''
When asked for his view of the significance of the purloined letter, which appeared to indicate that some Ethiopian officials planned to commit fraud, Mr. Page replied, ''I don't know about the letter. You've got me on that one.''
The consortium of aid groups that do relief work in Eritrea is made up of about a dozen organizations, including Dutch Inter-Church Aid, Christian Aid of Britain, and America's Lutheran World Relief. The latter group is by far the largest American contributor to Eritrean relief, donating more than $500,000 in 1983.
The consortium's other members insist on working anonymously, for fear of subjecting their projects in government-controlled areas of Ethiopia to possible retaliation. Likewise, they prefer to play down Sudan's role in allowing relief assistance to reach antigovernment Eritreans across the border. They do this - as an aid official put it - in order not to ''rub the Ethiopians' noses in it'' and provoke a response against Khartoum.
Indeed, so secret has the project been that only after top-level meetings in Europe at the end of 1983, when field monitors reported the full scope of the impending disaster in Eritrea, did the Dutch, British, and American organizations named above even decide to go public and openly appeal for aid.
''The Eritrea crisis is just too serious. We have to speak up, appeal for aid , if we're going to help these people,'' explained Norman Barth, director of Lu-theran World Relief. Mr. Barth spent 10 days in Eritrea inspecting rebel relief programs last December.
Dan Connell, director of Boston-based Grassroots International, the most active advocate for greater Eritrean assistance, says: ''There's no doubt in my mind that political fears are responsible for the scandalous neglect of Eritrea. We've given other agencies the facts, the photographs, the audits by reputable observers showing proper distribution - we've even offered to bring their inspectors in to assess the famine firsthand. We get sympathy, but usually that's all we get.''
Meanwhile, the famine rolls like a dust storm across the arid Eritrean landscape, threatening to swallow as many as 1 million people. Dutch Inter-Church Aid monitor Frits Eisenloeffel recently spent more than a month touring the Eritrean countryside. His conclusions:
Up to 1 million Eritreans are ''severely affected'' and ''in desperate need of famine relief.'' Rainfall in 1983 was ''so far below average'' that a ''fourth year of drought must now be added to the ongoing drama.''
Food supplies so far donated to Eritrea, he says, have been ''pathetically little in the face of the vast and increasing necessity.'' The food donations amount to no more than 4 percent of actual need, he says. And, most disquieting of all, the Eisenloeffel report found that ''all reserves are now exhausted.''