London — Growing -- if qualified -- optimism is replacing pessimism and gloom among those who monitor the worst African famine of the century. ``Let's face it,'' said a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official in Rome. ``The news this week is . . . well, it's good.''
Won't the UN risk discouraging government, private, and individual donors from giving more if he says so?
``I hope not,'' he replied. But when the news looks better, we have to say so -- otherwise we lose our crediblity.''
Comments a veteran private relief official in London: ``Yes, FAO is right. Prospects do look much better now for good harvests.
``Be careful, though. We're still talking about desperately marginal countries that need long-term help. . . .''
Why the optimism?
In southern Africa there is a grain surplus for export: Zimbabwe, 1 million tons; Malawi, 200,000 tons; Kenya, 100,000.
FAO now urging donors to provide money to transport surpluses to neighboring countries, Mozambique in particular.
Potential: If surpluses are exported, they could meet the entire food deficit of southern Africa next year.
Rains across Sahel are the best for several years. Prospects for harvests in November and December look better each week. Hopes are rising in Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Mali.
Ethiopia: still concern in Welo Province north of Addis Ababa. Elsewhere, rains in the west, some in the east. Ethiopia will import considerably less next year. No firm estimate of harvest yet.
Sudan: Harvest so far looks surprisingly good.
Mozambique: Almost 2 million rural people affected by hunger, mainly in Tete and Sofala Provinces. Rebel fighting in Tete is preventing grain distribution.
The harvest in other areas, already gathered, was good. In worst areas, farmers trying to raise quick crops of fruits and vegetables to substitute for grain.
Last year, the country needed 500,000 tons in food aid and received 400,000 tons. This year's need: 400,000 tons. FAO reports 65 percent already delivered.
Angola: People needing food include 2 million in cities, plus 500,000 fleeing civil war and drought. Food deficit: 380,000 tons, of which 120,000 will be food aid. Half of this aid has been pledged by donors. Already delivered: 20,000 tons. Food aid needs are 20,000 tons higher than last year. Internal distribution very difficult. Harvest was below normal.
WFP delivering tarpaulins for temporary storage.
Ethiopia, Sudan: Overall prospects better than for several years. Grain backlog in Red Sea port of Assab lower now, but port about to be swamped with 44,000 tons arriving in next few days. Average of five ships waiting outside harbor at anchor each day.
``We don't need new food pledges there now,'' says FAO man in Rome.
``We need the goodwill stirred internationally over the past year to be channeled now into long-term food production: restoring soils, water, trees, fertilizer, seeds.'' This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays