Famine Threat Revisits East Africa

US seeks early response; European Union considers pre-positioning food aid

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ANOTHER major famine in parts of Eastern and Central Africa - where 19 million people suffering from drought and civil conflict need food aid - can be avoided if international donors act now, according to senior United States and United Nations officials.

And in the long term, greater efforts to curb population growth and protect human rights can help bring the stability and development African nations need to resolve civil conflicts, and stem the hunger such chaos usually brings, says J. Brian Atwood, administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The immediate focus, Mr. Atwood said during a recent mission on behalf of President Clinton, is staving off widespread starvation in a 10-country region from Eritrea to Burundi. Government and international relief officials report that the starvation toll from drought in Ethiopia this year may already be in the thousands.

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USAID estimates that in 10 countries in East and Central Africa, 11.6 million people are at risk of famine from drought, and 5.6 million displaced and 1.8 million refugees are similarly at risk due to civil conflict. ``Our hope is to get ahead of this problem and get enough food into these countries so people just don't begin to move away from their homes,'' Atwood says.

In Rwanda, Burundi, and southern Sudan, famine is affecting hundreds of thousands fleeing from conflict. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, the main problem is drought. During the 1983-84 famine in Ethiopia, which claimed an estimated 1 million lives, many died of disease in overcrowded feeding centers after they left their homes in a desperate search for food.

The drought pattern this year in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea ``looks like 1983-84,'' says Ken Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a private US charity active in the region. Some 6.7 million people in Ethiopia and 1.5 million in Eritrea need food due to drought, US officials say.

President Clinton is trying to get donors, especially Europeans, to provide more food relief before existing stocks run out. ``We're trying to raise this to a political level,'' Atwood told the Monitor.

One European Union official said the EU ``is looking into the possibility of pre-positioning food aid in the region.''

At a press briefing earlier this month, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Richard Jolly praised the Atwood mission, during which the envoy met with the presidents of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as senior EU officials in Brussels, Vatican officials in Rome, and relief officials in Geneva. ``President Clinton, through this initiative, has put this [issue] on the side of politics. It could be cost-effective and save many lives,'' Dr. Jolly said. ``Famine should not follow rainfall disaster.''

Jolly said that getting donors to send food and relief materials before a disaster strikes requires ``lighting political fires under the international community.'' He noted that in 1992, international donors and African governments helped prevent famine during southern Africa's worst drought of the century through early preventive action. Famine was similarly prevented in Ethiopia in 1988 when donors moved quickly to provide food relief following major rain shortages.

Mr. Hackett of CRS warns, however, that ``there are fewer resources'' available now, due to major demands for food relief in Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and in parts of the former Soviet Union.

Atwood estimates that if the long rains due to begin now in Ethiopia are adequate, food shortages may be only 10 percent to 20 percent of the need. A worst-case scenario, he says, would be 30 percent to 40 percent.

Eritrea, however, has experienced a total crop failure in much of the country. And a major drought has developed in northern Sudan, says Jack Hjelt, a USAID official in Nairobi.

Atwood, commending Kenya as a positive example, says African countries must curb population growth to relieve pressure on food supplies, which in turn lead to instability. Population pressures probably exacerbated tensions in Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands have been killed in less than three months of ethnic fighting, he says. Respect for human rights must also be strengthened to avoid instability.

Atwood notes that since becoming administrator of USAID in May 1993, he has tried to infuse in the agency ``the notion that politics and democracy have to be part of the process'' of development. ``Progress can be wiped out in a minute if society falls into conflict,'' as in Rwanda, he says.

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