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Southern Africa Fights Drought of the Century

Even as world attention has been focused on halting war and famine in Somalia, people in southern Africa are finding new ways to cooperate in getting food to those who need it most

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 16, 1992


THE first phase of the biggest drought relief effort ever mounted is helping to avert a human disaster in the 12 countries of southern Africa.

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The regional drought, which came at a time of extreme hardship caused by economic recession, austerity programs, and civil wars, has ravaged the regional economy and drained most of the resources earmarked for vital development work. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes. And southern Africa has seen a bigger crop loss than that faced by Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in 1984 and 1985.

But the relief effort - the result of painstaking planning and regional and international cooperation on an unprecedented scale - has staved off the threat of famine and had a constructive influence beyond the distribution of short-term aid.

Over the past eight months, more than 7.7 million tons of grain have been delivered by an estimated 350 ships through nine regional ports - a volume of food relief nearly five times the amount dispatched in the mid-1980s to the Horn. (Figures throughout this report are in short tons.)

"The good news is that we have been ahead of the drought from the start," says Ted Morse, director of the United States Agency for International Development for Zimbabwe and Southern Africa programs. "By getting ahead of the drought we are preventing it becoming a famine. So we won't get the problems of southern Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia."

The 12 countries affected are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, and Madagascar.

Apart from averting widespread disaster, the relief effort has:

* Required close regional cooperation, and thus has played a significant role in breaking down political barriers and easing historical tensions between South Africa and its black-ruled neighbors.

* Bolstered the fragile peace accord in Mozambique and drawn the international community into a greater role in the transition to democracy.

* Increased pressures for democratic reforms in Zimbabwe by highlighting the shortcomings of state control of the drought relief effort.

* Accelerated the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa by exposing racial bias in the allocation and distribution of drought relief and inefficiency and corruption in homeland administrations.

Those states with democratic governments - Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia - have fared best in terms of drought relief.

Zambia, which introduced multiparty democracy a year ago, has developed a model for relief efforts run by nongovernmental aid and development organizations rather than the state - and based on the principle of food-for-work.

In South Africa, the shortcomings of the government relief program have spawned an umbrella body - the Consultative Forum on Drought - which has forged cooperation among trade unions, liberation movements, churches, development groups, and the government.

In Mozambique, where international aid workers had feared a disaster on the scale of the current famine in Somalia, a peace accord signed on Oct. 4 has boosted the drought relief program and ensured that food is reaching even the most remote villages.

Malawi, a landlocked country still in the grip of an authoritarian regime, has benefited least from the drought relief effort, partly because of logistical problems with transporting food through Mozambique. But the government has also failed to acknowledge the country's food needs and ordered commercial grain too late.