New York — From a room off a brown-painted corridor, wedged between doors to the consulates of Ethiopia and Jordan, comes an urgent warning to a Western world preoccupied with superpower summitry and United Nations pomp: ``People have the impression that the African famine emergency is running away [as a result of] the current rains in the Sahel and on the Horn.
``But we're facing a tougher situation in 1986 than we have done in 1985.
`` That's right: tougher.''
What's that? The African famine again?
But surely, as a British official remarked in Brussels the other day, it's raining in Africa now and the situation has eased.
Veteran UN relief official Maurice Strong of Canada is so agitated by this kind of talk that he shifts forward to the very edge of his chair, as his voice races to refute it.
Mr. Strong speaks as executive coordinator of the first UN office set up to pull together a global UN famine relief effort, the Office for Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA).
He supervises day-to-day efforts to feed and care for those who are still caught by drought and famine -- estimated by his staff at about 25 million people (41/2 million displaced from their homes) in 12 African countries south of the Sahara.
At a time when the UN is widely criticized for political ineffectiveness, the OEOA is hailed by some as an example of what the UN can do, if properly mobilized, on the humanitarian side.
When the world awoke to the extent of the African famine about a year ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organzation in Rome estimated up to 35 million people in 21 countries at risk, with 10 million displaced.
Touched by television, and fired up by the Band Aid/Live Aid rock concert, public opinion jolted Western governments and set in motion one of the biggest and most sustained relief efforts the world has seen.
But, the coming Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the UN anniversary, and the rain notwithstanding, this is no time to turn away.
So says a chorus of donor voices, from the UN and the US Agency for International Development to a battery of private voluntary relief agencies including Catholic Relief Services and the protestant World Vision in the US, and Oxfam and the Save the Children Fund (UK) in Oxford and London.
Work is still being done.
The US is spending at record levels.
The Italian government is busy spending $900 million on relief world-wide, much of it in Africa.
The Scandinavians support dozens of projects. The Netherlands and Belgium have made commitments ($34 million between them so far with another possible $57 million from Belgium alone) to a new Africa Fund to be operated by the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Rome.
The Americans, the Italians, and representatives of Live Aid/Band Aid are sending hundreds of trucks to Ethiopia.
But Mr. Strong, at OEOA, on the fifth floor of a building in UN Plaza just north of the blue glass, sweeping concrete, flapping flags, and shiny limousines of UN headquarters, wants more.
``Look here,'' he says, ``it's true that sub-Saharan Africa will need less actual food aid if the harvests in November and December produce as we hope they will.
``But there will be very, very significant deficits in parts of Africa, totaling between 3 and 4 million tons.
``For instance, Ethiopia will still have a food deficit in 1986. The picture in Sudan as yet is mixed.
``The point is that food surpluses in areas where harvests look good are enough to cover the deficits in other areas where harvests will be poor . . . but only'' (and here he almost came off his chair altogether) ``if we have enough money to buy up local surpluses and transport them across borders to deficit areas.''
He paused to let the implication sink in:
Individuals, governments, and private relief agencies in the Western world and Japan don't need to concentrate as much in 1986 as they did in 1985 on rushing surplus grain into African ports.
Some aid will be needed, but not as much as this year.
What donors need to do, the UN message is, is provide cold, hard cash to buy surplus African grain and move it to the hungry in a continent lacking roads, trucks, and managers.
That, as Strong well knows, will be far more difficult than asking donors to send surplus grain out of already bulging (and expensive) warehouses in North America, Western Europe, Australasia, and elsewhere.
Why? Because the first rush of urgency about the famine is already dissipating with the rains and the talk of the harvests which should result.
Fewer newspaper articles and television programs are expected next year. As Strong says, ``We won't have this year's visibility and publicity to put pressure on governments to give.''
OEOA knows that big donors much prefer to give surplus grain than money. Most donors also prefer to give their aid themselves rather than channel it through UN or other multilateral agencies.
Donors such as the US and France feel they can extract more political benefits from their aid that way because the aid carrys their name to those receiving it.
But there is one more reason for pressing donors for money in 1986: next year will see the need for large sums for non-food relief -- health care, sanitation, water supplies, fertilizers, trucks, road construction, and repair.
Last March, when the OEOA held a Geneva conference on the famine, the cost of non-food needs was estimated at $487 million, according to the OEOA's newest status report dated October.
But by Oct. 1, the need had jumped to $883 million, almost doubling.
The good news: $590 million of the $883 million hadAID32AID14 been contributed by Oct. 1. And only $94 million remains to be collected for transport needs.
The bad news: of $294 million needed for fertilizers and other farm aids, only $85 million had been provided, leaving $209 million uncovered.
The OEOA does not yet know the total amount of cash needed to move food around Africa next year. That will depend on the sizes of the actual harvests at the end of this year.
``But,'' says Strong, ``we have to fine-tune our aid in 1986 not to feeding alone, but to recovery and to development.''
It will take some doing.