London — 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.
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.
At OEOA's biggest major event so far, the UN African famine conference in Geneva last month, only Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar and Morse sat on the rostrum, instead of the usual UN agency heads.
``But,'' Mr. Brown asks, ``where do Morse and Strong go from here?''
In an interview with the Monitor, Strong gave these answers:
To take the generalized promises of emergency aid contained in speeches from donor nations at Geneva and turn them into actual food and other aid on its way to Africa.
To hold country-by-country meetings of donors and recipients for all of the 20 hardest-hit countries. Six were held in Geneva (including ones for Ethiopia, Sudan, and Chad).
The rest will be held in Dakar, Senegal, and Nairobi, Kenya, beginning this month.
To set up an ``African emergency response system'' in which the OEOA will act as ``a linking-piece, a switchboard, a linchpin to enable the various agencies and arms of the UN to operate effectively within a single command structure.''
To keep a close, up-to-date watch on the movements of grain ships to Africa by using private sources, such as Lloyds of London, rather than government reports which are often slow in coming.
But won't such powerful UN agencies as the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program keep on doing their own statistical and coordinating work?
``Yes,'' Strong replies, ``we don't command them in the field. But now they report to the Secretary-General through us. Take Kurt Janssen, for instance. He was appointed before we came into being -- but he reports back through us now.'' Mr. Janssen is the Secretary-General's special representative for Ethiopian aid in Addis Ababa.
Earlier in the day, Strong had told his audience at an Earthscan conference on Africa in London's Chatham House that ``the UN has deficiencies, but today it has a very special opportunity in Africa. . . . Even countries with doubts about the UN, such as the US, are finding that the UN is indispensable.''
He added, ``There's some truth to the charges that African problems were caused by colonialism, but Africans realize that they are in their own hands now. There is an absolute need for Africans to balance food production and develop-ment. . . .
``We have to listen to Africans and work with them, rather than impose `quick fixes' of our own . . . and we have to plan for recurring droughts.
``And we must integrate emergency aid with long-term development aid to improve food production. That's essential.''
Is there a long-term future for the OEOA?
``We plan,'' Strong says, ``to end OEOA's existence by the end of 1986. Some of its functions will then transfer to other parts of the UN.''
Strong has plenty of private business experience to fall back on. For instance, in 1978 he founded in Geneva the International Energy Development Corporation, a commercial venture to look for oil in third-world countries.
The largest shareholder was the Kuwait Petroleum Company, together with other Arab oil producers, and the Swedish giant Volvo.
Strong says he left the venture altogether when he took his current UN post, and that the corporation, which continues to operate, has been active in Tanzania, Egypt, and Sudan, among other countries.