Getting food aid past red tape, war

Three major short-term questions face Ethiopia and Western donors now that waves of American, British, European, Canadian and other aircraft full of grain, milk powder, blankets, and more emergency supplies have begun pouring in to help meet the challenge of what is now called the worst drought of the century.

* Can Ethiopian ports, rock-strewn landing strips, over-stretched trucking networks and elementary internal communications absorb the many-sided avalanche of aid?

* How can donor governments and relief agencies better coordinate the new aid flow to avoid aid being launched off pell-mell toward a poor and largely illiterate country overlaid with tedious paperwork for even the simplest tasks?

* How badly will the long-running civil wars in Eritrea (22 years) and Tigre (9 years) continue to impede the flow of food aid to both northern provinces where some reports say as many as 2 million people are starving?

In all of Ethiopia up to 10 million people are hit by the drought and famine. Relief officials have come to believe almost 1 million people will die this year alone.

Beyond these issues, the long-term task is to rebuild Ethiopian agriculture and livestock herds, build dams and catchment areas, resettle hundreds of thousands of people from the dried-out north to less-affected southern parts, and to limit population growth which has sent the total population up to a government estimate (still unpublished) of 42 million.

The biggest single country donor of all, the United States, cannot at present help with long-term aid such as dams, training, or investment, because US law blocks such aid until the Mengistu Haile Mariam government compensates Washington for US property nationalized after the revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie 10 years ago.

At the same time, Ethiopian and Western officials, plus private Western agencies, have another worry: That the flood of aid from the West will tail off soon, just when it is most needed.

''We're tremendously grateful for the aid,'' said Gus O'Keefe, coordinator for Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA), an umbrella group of 26 private aid agencies. ''But we hope it is sustained to cover all of 1985. Flash-in-the-pan aid would cause problems.''

At this writing, Western experts see a danger of the Ethiopian bureaucracy being swamped by influx of aid.

They point to the US having agreed to send emergency aid directly to Ethiopia instead of via Catholic Relief Services in New York; RAF British Hercules (and soon US Hercules) transport planes starting grain airlifts from Addis to the north; two big Soviet Antonov-22 transport aircraft having landed at Addis; and the United Nations General Assembly focusing on the famine.

''It could all be too much at once,'' said one Western government official. ''The government here is socialist. Guerrillas are in the north. A tremendous amount, though, remains to be done. Even in good years Ethiopia needs almost 7 million tons of grain to feed itself, but grows only about 6 million tons. Even if the next rains come on schedule, which they haven't done for three years, the famine will continue through next years harvest in November.''

Said another official, ''The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) here is being hit by a thousand and one offers, overlapping and sometimes interfering with each other.

''We have to put our own house in order, and include the Soviet block in our streamlining.''

A dissenting view comes from CRDA's Gus O'Keefe. ''The RRC is doing an extremely good job so far,'' he said.

''The aid coming in is going out and now we have the Hercules to airlift even more to the north.'' Other officials are more worried about the next few months than they are about today.

CRDA was to hold a regular coordinating meeting Nov. 5. Another private aid agency agreed that the situation needed close watching and coordinating.

The local United Nations World Food Program office is in charge of coordinating food shipments.

A working group of five donor governments and agencies and international groups warns that a lot must yet be done to improve unloading at the Red Sea port of Assab, to upgrade inland airstrips, and to smooth communications.

Regular tonnage of fertilizer and commercial food imports are due in Assab shortly, requiring berths, unloading crews, and trucks.

Leon de Rietmatten, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), runs a Red Cross Hercules to northern airstrips at Axum, Makele, and elsewhere.

Mr. de Rietmatten said stones on the Axum strip meant that Hercules tires had to be renewed every two trips. Makele was very stony. The strip at Alamata, which could also help relieve urgent needs at Korem, had been lengthened to take Hercules, but looked soft, he said.

The ICRC fed 220,000 people in October with general distributions of monthly food rations and some suplemental feeding, de Rietmatten said.

The arrival Saturday of RAF Hercules jets, and of the Soviet Antonov-22s, is welcomed here. Pilots say that setting up an airbase at Assab will be tricky. Forty-knot winds howl across the strip, which is also full of stones.

Word that the US will provide food aid directly to the Addis government is welcomed here by Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Relief coordinator Susan Barber said it would alow CRS to concentrate on its mother and child feeding programs without having to supervise US grain shipments as it has done until now.

In Eritrea and Tigre, guerrilla groups have offered safe passage to food truck convoys, yet the government keeps escorting convoys in the north with military units.

It is assumed here that the Addis Ababa government does not want to recognize the formal existence of the guerrillas, despite urgings by private relief groups anxious for a cease-fire to allow more food aid into the northern interior controlled by guerrilla forces.

Guerrilla spokesmen insist the government is using famine as a political tool to starve out their own forces.

Food is being run into Eritrea, however, by some independent relief agencies in the west from Port Sudan.

Meanwhile, long-term needs remain acute.

The British relief agency Oxfam has a long-term plan to supply 100,000 pounds worth of seeds. A number of relief agencies see a general need for African governments to change their pricing and farming policies to encourage more grain production.

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