Africa getting rain but aid still needed, UN official warns

A warning to North Americans, Europeans, and other individual, private, and government donors to Africa: The worst drought of the century is breaking. But the famine continues -- and will do so throughout next year. Huge amounts of aid are still needed. The warning comes from a key United Nations coordinator of Africa-wide famine relief, Undersecretary-General Maurice Strong in New York. In an interview, Mr. Strong said:

``This year in Africa we see famine and drought. Next year it's going to be famine without drought. Yes, the drought is breaking -- rains . . . are far better -- but that doesn't mean the famine is breaking.

``Hundreds of thousands of people are still in camps, away from their farms. Those who stayed on their land have no seeds. Even if crops do come in the next harvest, millions will still need famine relief in Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Sahel.''

Strong, a Canadian millionaire, is deputy head of the special UN Office of Emergency Operations for Africa set up by Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar amid some controversy late last year to coordinate UN, government, and private famine relief efforts.

In a long UN career Strong has twice lived in Africa, visited it often, and has a high reputation in the international aid community as an able executive.

``Of course,'' he said, ``the rains now falling across the famine belt help the next harvest. But rain doesn't mean instant crops. It's several months until harvest.''

On a deeper level, he said, the need to focus so heavily on short-term relief in recent years has diverted resources from long-term development. Heavy truck traffic on fragile, unpaved roads has caused damage.

He cited the case of railroads in the Sudan, a country about the same size as Western Europe. ``At independence,'' he said, ``Sudan's railroads carried 3 million tons of freight a year. Now they carry only 800,000 tons. Why? No maintenance. No money. One result is that more than 1 million people in Darfur Province on the Chad border in the west are without food.''

In Strong's view, massive amounts of international aid will be needed next year. He made a plea for continued public and media support: ``Governments react to what they feel people want, and people react to what they see and hear,'' he said. ``Television doesn't relay information as much as it creates an impression. Newspapers provide the facts. The media are not just a passive commentator in the famine crisis, but an actor, a part of the Western response.''

Strong and the director of the Office of Emergency Operations for Africa (OEOA), Bradford Morse, have run into criticism and some opposition from other aid organizations and entrenched UN agencies. Some British private aid groups have felt that Morse and Strong came too late, with too little leverage to help. Some senior UN officials think Secretary-General P'erez de Cu'ellar should have taken personal command of the famine effort to give it a higher profile.

UN officials such as the head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Edouard Saouma, have argued that Morse and Strong should stay out of operations and restrict themselves to coordination.

A cable from Dr. Saouma to Morse in June objected to OEOA action in spending Dutch government aid money on rice seeds for Chad, saying that such expenditure should be left to the FAO.

Strong concedes that the FAO cable was ``one of many such incidents.'' He went on: ``We are not trying to take over the mandate of other UN agencies. Our job is to push them to exercise their own mandates. . . . Of course there's a little elbowing once in a while.''

He said the OEOA had ``no problems'' with the rest of the UN, but ``operationally there have been problems.'' Overall relations with the FAO were ``good,'' but the FAO was ``sensitive about its mandate. . . . If they think we are pushing beyond our boundaries, they tell us.''

The newspaper story about the FAO-OEOA dispute, based on the Saouma cable, said the Dutch money had been earmarked for FAO and intercepted by the OEOA. Not so, Strong said. ``The Dutch agreed to switch their money from other purposes to rice for Chad. FAO couldn't find the seeds. We did.''

As for the OEOA itself, ``We are never satisfied with what we've done, but we believe we have helped in international efforts which have kept several milllion people alive who otherwise would have died in the famine.''

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