Update. The African famine

Now taking shape: Biggest truck fleet ever assembled to carry emergency famine grain to hungry Africans. The plan: multi-million-dollar, long-haul truck fleet for Ethiopia. Total: 350 trucks to be operated by United Nations food aid arm (World Food Program, or WFP) in Ethiopia for military-Marxist government.

The aim: to move about 21,000 tons of grain per month from ports of Assab and Massawa to almost 2 million hungry Ethiopians in northern highlands.

The cost: $6 million for 17 WFP staff and startup, plus $9 million to run trucks for one year. Most cash coming from United States Agency for International Development (AID). Some $2 million from Live Aid/Band Aid. Also Italian money.

The operation is classic, text-book example of how hard it can be to succeed in Africa.

The problems: uneasy three-way partnership between AID (150 trucks leased from relief agency World Vision in Europe), Live Aid/Band Aid (54 trucks on ship in Kuwait with 46 more to come), Italian government (100 trucks promised). Despite months of planning and a mid-Sept. press release, no trucks actually in Ethiopia yet. Partners keep disagreeing.

The outlook: agreement fairly soon. Says one UN relief coordinator wearily: ``We still juggling WFP, AID, Live Aid, Ethiopian government, private agencies, and who knows who else . . . negotiations sometimes seem endless. . . .''

Troubles because of different interests:

AID: wants to get food to Eritrean, Tigrean secessionist guerrillas as well as to government-controlled areas. Top US priority: to feed as many starving as possible. (US the biggest single donor in Ethiopia despite political friction between Marxist government and free-enterprize Reagan people.)

Ethiopia: leans on Soviet Union for arms to fight Africa's longest civil war against Eritrea (two decades) and long (one decade) struggle against Tigreans. Top priority: winning both wars. Second: feeding cities. Third: resettling northerners to south, and feeding starving.

Live Aid/Band Aid: Bob Geldof, Kevin Jenden (director), and wife Penny Jenden all suspicious of UN red tape. Originally wanted trucks given to private US operator. UN coordinating office for African emergency in New York told them: ``You can't work alone. Use WFP.'' Jendens finally agreed.

UN: At first reluctant to get into Ethiopian transport business. Now WFP Ethiopian office in Addis Ababa expanding rapidly, from handful to 17 people. Biggest operation yet for WFP, on top of another major effort coming up in Sudan.

Italy: keen on using part of huge global aid budget ($900 million) for grain transport, but slow to get trucks to Assab.

``I'd like to be moving faster,'' says official in WFP Rome headquarters. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays

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