Africa's hungry

The world must continue to show compassion and provide food for needy African nations, even as evidence mounts that the continent's long-run problems are much deeper. Today's widespread hunger in many nations, in part caused by drought, remains to be met. But to meet the more basic requirement - moving each country even a step toward economic as well as agricultural self-sufficiency - several African nations require sizable amounts of economic assistance. For their part, they must also make significant social, political, economic, and bureaucratic changes.

Reports of a new World Bank analysis echo this summer's conference on Africa by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in concluding that the requirements of the poorest African nations are enormous. Several, such as Ethiopia and Mozambique, are riven with strife; economies are in disarray; population continues to soar; and government bureaucracies, even if well meaning , are frequently ineffective.

Major and often difficult governmental reforms in many of Africa's poorest nations are in order. A proposal before the United States Congress would provide helpful incentive in the important area of encouraging African nations to grow more of their food. The measure would permit the administration to provide funds to nations that revamp their government procedures in ways that should lead to an increase in domestic food production. It is a worthwhile idea. During the remaining two weeks of the congressional session, both houses of Congress may decide to approve and finance it, although likely not at the $500 million level sought by President Reagan.

A plan expected to be proposed at this week's World Bank meeting would establish a special fund to aid the poorest nations of black Africa. It comes in response to growing concern that the long-range problems of these nations are being obscured by preoccupation with the enormous foreign debts of several South American nations. It is a proposal that found Western nations split: Most were in favor; but some, including the United States, were against.

There is wide agreement, however, on the need to help African countries meet their current hunger challenge, which is especially severe in the region south and east of the Sahara Desert. There's concurrence, too, that the major current bottleneck remains what it has been for months: getting donated food from the ports of poor nations to hungry people in the countryside. Roads are generally few and poor. Thus far US government food programs have paid the cost of transporting foodstuffs to the needy nations' ports but have required those countries to provide and pay for distribution - a difficult burden for the recipients, given local transportation conditions and the impoverishment of government coffers.

Two ideas now before Congress show promise in speeding up distribution. One proposal would establish a $50 million fund for American presidents to use in meeting international emergencies; it would permit the US to pick up the cost of moving food from recipient countries' ports to inland locations.

The second proposal aims at an earlier stage of the hunger cycle. It would speed up the aid process by cutting down on the weeks necessary to transport foodstuffs from storage areas in the United States to American ports and thence via ship to African ports. This would be accomplished by ''pre-positioning'' food: storing sizable amounts of American grain and other commodities nearer areas, presumably in Africa, where food shortages loom; then, if the need should arise, food could be distributed quickly.

The idea has merit. Yet to be figured out: whether food should be stored in a few permanent structures in Africa, or possibly even Europe, or whether it should be pre-positioned in smaller quantities in a large number of temporary structures in hunger-prone lands to decrease still further the time needed for final distribution.

The hungry must be fed. Food should continue to be sent by developed nations to meet today's requirements. But beyond the present circumstances, the long term must be dealt with, too. That makes a strong case for providing economic assistance to permit the poorest African nations to build up their economies. It also argues for building into loans powerful incentives for those nations to make more effective their own economies, governments, and programs.

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