Time to send aid to Serbia

By , Antonia Blackwood, and Loubna Freih

The victory of democratic forces in Serbia over the most destructive ruler in post-World War II Europe is being met with celebration abroad. But the international community needs to do more than applaud; it must channel immediate and useful emergency assistance to Serbia.

Foreign aid is crucial for retaining the confidence of the Serbian people in the new government. Already energy deficits are causing demoralizing electrical blackouts relatively unknown during the Milosevic era. Just as the Balkan winter is arriving, fuel and food will be running out.

Of greatest concern is the energy sector, where the situation has recently deteriorated. There are rolling electrical blackouts and heating cut-backs throughout the country. The Europeans were planning to provide over 200 million euros by mid-November, a portion of which will go to the energy sector. This is not sufficient, however, even with the projected resumption of the Russian natural-gas flow. There is also a requirement for coal and firewood to cover the fuel needs of a significant portion of the population.

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Just as serious, by the end of the year the UN's World Food Program (WFP) will run out of key commodities to feed the most vulnerable of the nearly 2 million disadvantaged in Serbia. These poorest people are caught up in a dismal economy without a government safety net. Unless immediate emergency funding is provided, WFP will be forced to drastically reduce food-aid distribution in the dead of winter when nutritional needs are greatest.

To prevent a disastrous break in the food pipeline, donors should immediately provide $10 million for procurement of wheat flour by WFP to cover the first quarter of 2001 and to maintain food assistance at its current levels. The United States is providing in-kind food aid, but this may not arrive until the end of winter. The European Union may also provide some additional aid. The US and EU should actively encourage individual European governments to provide the needed cash to prevent food-aid shortfalls.

A further humanitarian concern is the need for emergency aid for the 700,000 refugees and displaced persons. To reduce the effects of winter exposure on these vulnerable populations, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urgently requires the $20 million requested in its Oct. 26 appeal to meet nonfood needs, including blankets, mattresses, beds, stoves, hygiene parcels, and fuel.

In view of the dire situation facing the poorest Serbians, UNHCR should include needy citizens as beneficiaries, along with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Greater parity in this regard will help alleviate the growing tensions between refugees, IDPs, and the local population.

There is a great need for improved coordination among donors and UN agencies. A good opening step would be the appointment of a full-time UN coordinator with real clout over the various agencies on the ground. On the Serbian side, an official with inter-ministerial authority should be named to coordinate with donors and international agencies.

If the international donor response to the acute humanitarian requirements in Serbia is inadequate, then an international conference of key donors should address the matter. Now that Slobodan Milosevic has finally been unseated, the international community should seize the moment to support the democratic transition in Serbia. At the same time, it is important to underscore that international aid should not come at the expense of programs in Kosovo or Montenegro.

When the NATO alliance acted (correctly, though belatedly) to protect Kosovars, resources were not an issue. Now that peace and democracy have come to Serbia, surely the international community can assist that country and its people to move forward, starting on the humanitarian front.

Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, and field representatives Antonia Blackwood and Loubna Freih, recently returned from Serbia.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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