Hoses, radios, and sheep: part of some new ideas to help Africa. Four new books offer solutions that defy conventional Western wisdom

Transparent plastic hoses filled with water . . . low walls of stones . . . simple side-band radio receivers . . . a livestock-fattening scheme called GASP (Goat and Sheep Project) . . . modern credit funds for remote herders to buy livestock and food when prices are low. These ideas are all part of new thinking about Western aid policies that is beginning to overturn conventional Western approaches toward helping Africa survive drought and famine.

They surface in four new publications in the United States and Western Europe which analyze at length what can best be done with, in, and for Africa, still fighting its way through the worst drought and famine of the century.

Brought out by four well-known private groups (in London, Geneva, Washington, and San Francisco), the studies are being widely sold and promoted in an effort to awaken Western public opinion to what these groups see as the need for:

Much more help to the small farmer. Aid for small, individual rural projects rather than for huge dams and city buildings. An Oxfam worker in northern Burkina Faso taught the villagers to tie the ends of a clear plastic hose to two upright poles of equal length. The hose hangs between the two poles in a U-shaped loop and is almost totally filled with water. The farmers move along their flat land, and by holding the poles to keep the water at equal levels in the ends of the hose, they search for tiny contour ridges too small to be detected by the naked eye. Using the hose as a level (when water at each hose-end is at the same height framers know the poles are on ground levels that are equal) they are able to detect potential water-runoff areas and lay low, stone terrace walls along them, about an inch high. When rain comes, the ridges stop priceless water from running off.

Changing the basic perception of aid. Instead of viewing it as needing to provide an economic rate of return, emphasize instead the urgent necessity of saving, regenerating, and protecting the basic building blocks of African resources -- its soils, water, trees, livestock -- as well as helping with communications.

The GASP project east of Nairobi is a ranch with some 800 sheep and goats. Local farmers can buy them at reasonable prices. Fatter, stronger animals mean more prosperity -- and the local Roman Catholic diocese uses the ranch to attract farmers to literacy classes, women's groups, and agricultural workshops as well.

The sideband radios link 16 villages in Mali which are able to report rainfall to a central location. The central office in turn advises when to plant and weed crops.

Local control. Not running aid programs from Washington, London, or Paris, nor even from Nairobi or Abidjan, Ivory Coast, but delegating authority to workers right out in the rural areas where the food is grown.

In Niger, nomads with no previous access to financing are grouped into associations by the US Agency for International Development. Each association is allotted a loan fund (around $6,000) for revolving credit. It also uses a cereal fund of about $4,500 so it can buy cereal immediately after harvest when prices are lowest.

Slowing population growth. Aiming a new public searchlight on an issue still given scant credence by many in the West: that the world's fastest rates of population growth -- Africa's -- are threatening to eat up and overwhelm the continent's economic, social, and food-growing gains.

Stretching out repayments on Africa's debt. Interest alone is to rise from $9.9 billion a year in 1984 to almost $12 billion in 1985-86.

The four study groups are: the International Institute for Environment and Development in Britain (whose Earthscan paperback is entitled ``Africa in Crisis: the Causes, the Cures of Environmental Bankruptcy'').

The Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues in Geneva (``Famine -- A Man-Made Disaster?'').

Worldwatch Institute in Washington (``Reversing Africa's Decline'').

The Hunger Project in San Francisco (``Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time Has Come'').

The first three advocate locally-based, farm-centered solutions to Africa's challenges, with particular attention on saving the African environment.

The Earthscan book, by Lloyd Timberlake, is a clear, well-written, comprehensive compilation which concludes that the African peasant is ``the key to rebuilding'' the continent.

In an interview, Mr. Timberlake said, ``The African crisis is one of political and economic mismanagement. The environment has been hammered. Africa won't recover until it is restored. Present aid policies can't do it. We must look to the small farmer, and help him and her.''

The study by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, edited by Mark Malloch Brown, calls in a low-key, broadbrush way for much more use of the United Nations (setting up a UN logistics agency, for instance, and strengthening its disaster relief machinery), for rural credit, and for restoring ``small-scale farming.''

One area of hope: The commission says that in 1984, ``at least 10 African governments announced plans to devolve agricultural responsibilities, particularly for marketing, to village or farmer associations. At least 16 governments have either raised the price of farm products or removed price controls altogether.''

The Worldwatch study, by Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, stresses in terse, readable style the need to shift away from aid that exists to make money or soak up surplus commodities. It calls, in part, for mobilizing millions of people to ``plant trees, build soil conservation terraces, and plan families.''

It stresses the need for new types of international and African government and private organizations, (and envisions a ``World Bank-organized internatinal youth-assistance corps modeled after the US Peace Corps. . . .'')

The greatest risk in Africa, the study says, is that there will be a ``loss of hope.''

The Turner Broadcasting group is working on plans to adapt the Worldwatch report for television.

The Hunger Project book, containing 190 color photographs, is an emotional rather than an intellectual appeal to persuade individual Westerners to commit themselves to ``ending hunger.''

It draws no conclusions, but lists viewpoints on various sides of population, food, foreign aid, and national security issues. It also comments on plans for the UN's New International Economic Order (higher commodity prices, more aid and preferential tariffs for the third world, and expanded voting and special drawing rights within the International Monetary Fund).

The book's appeal is its collection of stunning photographs. It took five years to compile.

Editorially, it lists double the number of arguments against population control, existing foreign aid programs, and the New Economic Order as it does for them.

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