UN dollar-a-year man tries to streamline flow of aid to Africa
An energetic man of middle height, wearing a gray suit and a toothbrush mustache, peers over half-moon reading glasses at his audience. He has been talking of new efforts by the United Nations to fight famine and drought in Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Now he wants to reinforce the urgency of the plight in Africa -- where most countries lag behind Asia and Latin America, which have made progress through food-growing, family-planning, and economic policies -- in a new, arresting way.
``In many African countries,'' he says, ``the only growth is in population, mortality rates, and debt. . . . Look at the human drama: 1 million people will die in the Sudan unless we get new aid into the pipeline soon. . . . In one Mali village when the water failed, babies were given `water' that was 80 percent mud. . . .
``The gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa has fallen each year since 1980. . . . Grain yields per capita are down from 150 kilograms per head in 1980 to less than 100 today. . . . Populations are growing at a rapid 3 percent a year and half of all the people are aged 15 or under.''
It is a somber analysis -- but made with constructive intent.
The man in the gray suit is Canadian businessman, farmer, development aid official, and intermittent international civil servant Maurice Strong. A millionaire with many private business interests including two farms in Australia, he got his first job with the UN back in 1947.
Perhaps best known at the UN for heading its Environmental Program, his latest UN job is deputy head of the new UN Office for Emergency Operations in Africa. The OEOA is supposed to take hold and coordinate the global flow of relief aid to Africa south of the Sahara as drought worsens in the Sahel and on the Horn.
It is still new, and skeptics abound: Can it really make any impact on the complex web of UN, national, and private aid agencies already entrenched and on the job?
``I have my doubts,'' says one veteran UN observer and former UN official here. ``I don't have a clear sense of what the UN office is actually doing. . . . Africa can't be fully propped up in the next few years . . . but Maurice Strong is the best thing the new UN office has.
``For him the UN dream still lives. Here is this dynamic businessman with lots of money who keeps coming back to take new UN jobs.''
Strong does not accept his UN salary. ``He's a dollar-a-year man,'' says the UN observer, ``and pays his own way. On his latest trip to London he flew tourist class -- to the embarrassment of UN officials who were traveling business class at UN expense in the same plane.''
At stake in the OEOA is much more than just another UN experiment. Can veteran officials like Strong really streamline the flow of aid so that millions of Africans on the edge of starvation can survive? Can the UN itself regain credibility with major powers by working successfully on humanitarian issues such as emergency relief?
The answers remain to be seen. Certainly Strong and his American boss, Bradford Morse, are widely credited with industry, commitment, and experience. Yet the skeptics are unconvinced.
``Morse and Strong have won some minor bureaucratic victories by bringing other UN agency officials to meetings in New York,'' says Mark Malloch Brown, editor of the Economist's monthly development report.