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Ethiopians starve as West promises aid

The pledges are generous, but delivery could take months longer.

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2000


Murayo Husan Ahmed rushes out from a grass hut in Ethiopia's drought-stricken region and thrusts her six starving children before a photographer.

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"The last time we got some wheat was two months ago," says Mrs. Ahmed, opening a colorful shawl to reveal the gaunt baby cradled in her arms. The camera clicks.

Dozens of other villagers come forward, lining up to display their starving toddlers. It is a disturbing scene of desperation, but these peasants recognize that gut-wrenching pictures are what it takes to draw attention to Ethiopia's plight, where 8 million people are faced with famine.

The community of world superdonors, from the United Nations to the European Union and USAID officials, was warned months ago that disaster was set to unfold in Ethiopia - but until last week, failed to respond. Aid officials, however, say that Ethiopia's appeal for 830,000 metric tons of food aid is almost fulfilled by pledges from the West, but it will be months before they are delivered.

"I'm afraid," says Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, Sayoum Mesfim. "Africa gets response from Europe, from the international community, only when people see the skeletons on their screens and in their newspapers."

When the last infamous famine killed 1 million Ethiopians15 years ago, international media coverage prompted an outpouring of food donations. Bob Geldof and his celebrity rock friends staged the Live Aid concert. Then there were fervent promises that such a disaster would never be allowed to happen again.

Ethiopia and the long line of aid groups here had worked tirelessly to hold true to that promise. Foreign development organizations started dozens of long-term programs to help peasant farmers better feed their families - irrigation projects, seed distribution, forestation, loaning programs. The Ethiopian government had stashed away 310,000 metric tons of grains in an emergency reserve and developed a disaster-management program to predict food shortages. Then came three years of successive drought and crop failure. Warnings of wide-spread hunger were sounded as far back as August. In January, officials announced just how many people faced starvation in the months ahead: 8,028,172, to be exact.

World donors acknowledged the numbers were legitimate. Yet many still failed to deliver on shipments they had promised to send last year. The tons of grain that Ethiopia had long ago stored in warehouses across the country acted as a food bank of sorts - a reserve specifically designed to avoid disaster by cutting down on the lag time between pledges and delivery. When an overseas donor makes a food pledge, bags are immediately distributed from the warehouses so hungry people are not forced to wait months for a foreign ship to come in. Donors are then supposed to "pay back" the food reserve.

In January, as the warning bells were ringing and Ethiopia issued a plea for food donations, the United States still had not delivered on 90,000 metric tons of previously promised grains. The European Union owed 78,000 tons, and the United Nations' World Food Program was 52,000 tons behind. Two weeks ago, a total of 305,000 metric tons was still owed to the reserve.

Now there is not enough food for distribution. This tardiness by the West may be the result of bureaucratic bungling and logistical difficulties rather than deliberate neglect, but John Graham of Save the Children says there is no excuse.

"If the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 showed nothing else," says Mr. Graham, "it demonstrated that ordinary people would not tolerate starvation on any part of the globe."

The foreign press corps is no better. It ignored news releases warning of famine early on, only to arrive en masse in Ethiopia now that children are dying every day in places like Chereti.

On the outskirts of this sprawling grass-hut village, mounds of freshly dug graves rise and fall across the desert landscape like gentle moguls on a ski slope. Twenty-seven victims of hunger were laid to rest last month alone.