A caring move for Africa

The two-part United States program to aid famine-threatened areas of Africa is welcome. In the short run the nearly $100 million in food this year should greatly alleviate the immediate need. Another $80 million a year for five years is to be provided to boost local food output, encouraging farmers to stay on the land rather than move to the city.

Yet the program by itself does not solve the African food problem, which has been of particular concern during the past 14 years of drought. More will be needed - more food this year, more funding in the future. And especially a commitment by all receiving nations this year to try to get the food to the hungry, no mean feat in a continent where roads and other distribution facilities are often primitive.

In past years the US has been generous with food aid to Africa's hungry. And in one swoop this week the Reagan administration met two-thirds of the continent's estimated emergency demand for food this year, providing $100 million of the $150 million believed needed. The US will be sending food, rather than money. Administration and distribution are usually done by private American agencies, less frequently through host-nation agencies that are considered able and honest. Historically there has been little problem in Africa with diversion of food or money to the wealthy, rather than to the hungry.

There are major distribution challenges, however. In some countries roads are inadequate, or trucks are scarce, or governments facing insurgencies want to feed only people in areas loyal to their command. And in some nations the people are spread so widely that it is a major logistical feat to reach all in need.

The current experience in Ethiopia yields lessons. Port and transportation facilities within the country are inadequate, the government is focusing on its battles with insurgents, and many of the hungry are in insurgent-controlled lands. Consequently, food had been piling up on docks and not reaching those in need, causing some donor nations to suspend shipments until distribution improved. US and other efforts apparently are beginning to clear the logjam.

The US should closely monitor distribution in the African nations that will receive the new food shipments to ensure that those governments are doing all they can to enable the food to reach the people.

Specialists say that helping Africans learn how to improve agriculture so as to be able to feed themselves will take far more than the approximately $80 million a year that the US announced this week. The US is providing other economic assistance to Africa, as well. But one expert points out that during the 1960s, when the dollar bought more than today, the international community gave $300 million to $500 million to India to assist it in becoming agriculturally self-sufficient. It now is.

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