Europe's $36 million 'Berlin Airlift' to Poland

The largest single aid program undertaken by Western Europe in response to the Polish crisis is about to commence.

Compared by some officials -- perhaps too enthusiastically -- to the Berlin Airlift, the project is to begin next month and continue through May. It will send more than 300 trucks loaded with 7,000 tons of charitable cargo -- food and medical supplies worth $8.5 million -- to Poland.

This is to be the initial phase of a $36 million emergency aid program approved last month by the European Community (EC).

Representatives from 35 non-governmental organizations (NGO), including the Red Cross, met in Brussels Feb. 15 to work out the logistics of the deliveries.

The new initiative marks a drastic change in official EC thinking on European aid to the Polish people. Previously, assistance had taken the form of food sales to the Warsaw government at cheap prices. Polish authorities last year bought a million tons of food (principally grain, beef, butter, and sugar) from the EC at 15 percent below world market prices, costing the European taxpayer about $85 million.

But the martial-law crackdown in Poland on Dec. 13 turned the heads of EC policymakers, and last month EC Commission President Gaston Thorn said that it was no longer possible to determine if the EC food was ''reaching the people who need it most'' or ''winding up in the hands of the military government.''

He suggested, therefore, that the EC halt the sale of subsidized food and use the money to buy mostly medical supplies with some food that could be sent through non-government organizations ''in order to assure that the right people receive our assistance.''

Days after Thorn's speech, foreign ministers from the 10 EC countries approved the $36 million scheme.

Private European aid to Poland has been extensive, totalling thousands of tons of food and other assistance worth millions of dollars. West Germany and the US and have been the most generous donors.

As welcome as the aid may be -- especially deliveries under the new EC program -- the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which last year collected about $23.7 million for Poland (two-thirds of it after martial law was imposed), has estimated that $21 million in aid will be needed over the next two months to protect the most vulnerable of Poland's people against malnutrition and disease.

Doctors in Poland have reported a sharp deterioration in the health of young people in recent months and an increase in malnutrition among large segments of the country's 36 million people. And with prices expected to rise five-fold and lines certain to lengthen at food stores as shortages increase, the situation can only grow worse, officials are quick to emphasize.

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