Food aid to Africa slackens but need expected to double next year

The world aid effort to feed the hungry in Africa is caught in a crunch. Aid from private, individual pockets and purses is slowing down. Efforts by the United Nations, private agencies, and governments are beset by politics in Ethiopia and are not well coordinated overall, diplomats and private analysts agree.

Yet famine in Africa is worsening. The UN estimates that the 21 worst-hit countries will need twice as much food aid this year as they needed last year.

A complex picture of the situation emerges from Monitor telephone interviews with public, private, and government sources in London, Rome, New York, and Washington.

On the one hand:

The massive response from individuals in the West to pleas for food donations to Africa -- a response that has seen about $60 million donated in the US and as much as $112 million in Europe since October -- is beginning to slacken.

The fear is that the graphic television pictures of African famine victims aired last autumn might only have created a donor cycle in the West -- a cycle, as one analysis has it, of ``shock, pity, giving, feeling better, and forgetting.''

The slowdown is reported by private agencies here such as Oxfam International and Save the Children, and also by a private campaign that raised $1.12 million in Britain to send wheat to Ethiopia between June and December last year.

Overall coordination of the global aid flow remains a problem. While the US and some other governments continue to pour food and other supplies into Africa (the US effort alone may reach $1 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30), private aid agencies and the UN may not be coordinated enough to respond well to the current situation.

Some private agencies are unhappy with new coordination machinery set up by the UN. ``The UN is so compartmentalized,'' says Hugh Mackay, director of overseas operations for Save the Children (UK). ``It lacks the sense of urgency that is so needed.''

At the same time, some private donors think the private agencies themselves need to show more efficiency to match their generous motives. ``Well meaning, but too often disorganized,'' is how one donor characterizes the agencies.

Meanwhile, the situation in Africa is worsening:

Famine in the Horn of Africa, westward in the Sahel, and south in Mozambique is growing so much worse that the 21 most needy countries will need 6.6 million tons of food aid this year, according to the latest famine report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The countries needed half that amount -- 3.3 million tons -- last year.

Pledges from donors have reached 4.4 million tons, but the FAO reports that ``less than half of the known pledges have yet to be delivered.'' There are fears of an aid ``gap'' after April, though the UN World Food Program says pledges are in sight after April.

Growing alarm is heard here about the Sudan, which so far has lacked the kind of dramatic television coverage that roused public concern for Ethiopia.

So many refugees are pouring into Sudan from other countries -- including as many as 250,000 from Uganda and 100,000 from Chad -- that the total number is now put at 1 million. They exacerbate drought conditions in Dafur and Kardofan to the west, and in the Red Sea hills among the Beja nomads. Large crowds are camping at Omdurman, on the bank of the Nile opposite Khartoum.

The population of a former watering hole called Wad Kowli, also just across the Ethiopian border, has jumped from a handful of people last December to some 85,000 today as refugees from the province of Tigre drag themselves across into Sudan. Conditions are so desperate that the private agency in charge, Save the Children (UK), reports that the camp will need to be moved in 20 days because it has almost run out of water.

In Ethiopia, the FAO now estimates that 7.7 million people face food shortages or starvation. This is more than 1 million higher than estimates made last autumn.

In northern Ethiopia, in the Tigre and Eritrea provinces that are waging civil war against the Marxist government in Addis Ababa, so many areas are now uninhabitable that refugees are fleeing across the border into Sudan at a rate that may be as high as 2,000 people a day.

``You also have politics,'' says one international aid official. ``The port of Massawa, to the north, isn't being used because it is the port for areas held by rebels in the civil war.'' So, he notes, ``You still have Ethiopia, a country of 40 million people, depending on a single small U-shaped port -- Assab on the Red Sea -- with only five berths.''

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