AS the images of the famine in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Sahelian Africa disappear from our newspapers, planning must begin for the next drought. Even if current development programs achieve the most optimistic goals set for them, it will be at least two generations before the increases in average per capita productivity will free sub-Saharan Africa from the worst consequences of climatic uncertainty.
Only by actions undertaken now can the affected countries of Africa and their international partners avoid repeating the terrible experiences of this latest drought.
Famine can be prevented in Africa if a meaningful drought policy is developed and prepared for implementation. An effective drought policy can also contribute to economic development.
Consider how a successfully conceived drought program helped the Indian state of Maharashtra, a region which, with a 1981 population of 62.8 million people, has about 80 percent as many people as the seven most seriously drought-afflicted countries of black Africa.
In 1971-74, Maharashtra experienced a drought that led to food-grain harvests that in the three successive years were 18 percent, 27 percent, and 53 percent below normal.
Since the state normally imported about one-third of its food-grain needs, it faced enormous deficits. But the death rate for the state did not rise significantly, and there were no occasions for the BBC to film famine camps.
When the drought ended with a good monsoon, the output of food grains in the next year rebounded to 106 percent of its pre-drought level and increased 12 percent and 14 percent in the succeeding two years.
These successes were due to the established drought management policy used by the state of Maharashtra. The policy has three main components:
Intervene early in the drought episode:
The distress that is produced by a drought is not a sudden crisis like an earthquake.
When the rains are scanty or late, when fields go unplanted, when grain prices begin to rise, when the number of wanderers suddenly increases, the signs are there that action needs to be taken if disaster is to be averted.
When the government intervenes at this early stage, people can be kept in their homes with their families, with their productive assets intact (however meager), with their independence retained, and suffering relatively little nutritional stress.
Provide relief by hiring those in need to work on development projects:
Wherever possible, pay cash wages and ensure that the food distribution system makes grain available.
When intervention occurs at an early stage, while people still have their normal health and strength, their energy can be turned to development work -- improving roads, constructing wells, leveling fields, building small irrigation facilities, planting trees. Employment preserves old skills and builds new ones. More important, it preserves the self-respect and independence of the affected population in ways that no program of free food can. Paying wages in cash adds to the dignity of labor.
When the drought ends, rebuild working capital in agriculture:
Even with early intervention, farmers are likely to have to draw down their stocks of seed and to sell some of their tools or animals.
If their productivity when the rains return is to equal its former levels (or even increase), these essential elements must be replaced.
Could this drought relief policy be made to work in Africa? Yes, if the following steps were undertaken:
Early intervention requires local knowledge, including a good understanding of what is normal. A capacity to collect and interpret basic statistical information must be built in African nations.
The government of Maharashtra could call on the government of India to meet many of its needs for resources (especially food-grain imports) to support its employment program.
Mechanisms must be created that will permit the poor states of Africa to obtain supplemental resources at an early stage so that they can intervene early and in ways that will supplement their ongoing development efforts.
Donors cannot wait until the pictures of the starving fill our newspapers and television screens and shame us into sending extraordinary aid. We must find ways to release funds and supplies when the rains fail but while famine can still be prevented.
Plans must be made in partnership with the governments and peoples of Africa.
The effectiveness of international aid can be increased only if donors can obtain a more precise view of the needs that develop. However inefficient they may often seem, the governments and peoples of Africa are the sources of the local knowledge that is necessary if early intervention in a drought is to prevent famine and contribute to development.
Drought management policy must become a regular component of the training of both national and international civil servants.
These hardworking professionals need to be equipped with knowledge that enables them to recognize the need for relief employment, with skill to organize that employment and the food supplies on which it depends, and with plans to rebuild working capital.
While we may hope and pray that Africa will see no more droughts this century, we must also work to see that all those who engage in development work in Africa learn the importance of planning for drought as an expected visitor.
By building contingency plans for drought into development plans, we can deny famine a future.
Dr. Michelle McAlpin is professor of economics at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. She has written extensively on drought and famine and is the author of the book ``Subject to Famine.''