Update. The African famine

Biggest news this week: Blunt message from Washington to Europe on still-suffering Sudan (20 million people in area big as Western Europe): ``We're cutting back somewhat on aid in 1986 to Sudan. Please give more money yourselves: urgently.'' Question: will European Community? Total need: about 700,000 tons of food aid.

This year the United States provided 85 percent of all Sudan's food aid. US total: 1,000,224 tons of sorghum and wheat valued at $277 million

Good effort by US? Non-US aid experts say yes. Only blemish: failure to deliver everything needed to far western Darfur and Kordofan provinces before rains cut railroad and truck routes.

Railroad collapsed during coup against former President Jaafar Nimeiry. Effort to use joint Sudan-US private contractor less than successful, many believe.

Now US and United Nations see next year's relief needs in Sudan cut in half because of good rains. Needs estimated at 400,000 tons for Darfur, Kordofan, and Red Sea Hills, where rain was poor and at 300,000 tons for refugees from Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda. Dollar value: $117 million to $120 million.

New US decision is in three parts:

To provide half of the 400,000 tons and one-third of the 300,000.

To stop distributing food and rely on private relief agencies with proven records: Save The Children UK, Oxfam, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, and others.

To make up the 200,000 tons for far west and Red Sea not with new grain but by using 80,000 tons US grain already backlogged in Port Sudan, and by providing cash to shift grain from surplus to deficit areas.

European private agencies greatly relieved. They thought US pulling out of Sudan altogether after widespread criticism Kordofan-Darfur operation.

``Who can fault US for going from 85 percent to half?'' asks one UK private agency man. ``Now it's up to Europe to respond.''

One European agency (Oxfam) plans to telegram Brussels with request for European Community to meet one-third of needs in Sudan and in Ethiopia. US diplomats now delivering word of new decision in European capitals. Also telling UN Emergency Office for Africa in New York. Washington particularly wants Italy to allocate more from its aid fund of 1 billion dollars.

US cutting back following rainy season. Officials felt US took on too much by itself this year.

What if famine re-emerges? Agency for International Development (AID) plans go back to Congress for more money if situation in far west or Red Sea merits it.

Was Washington upset at criticisms over far west? Yes, but officials see operation as successful. No evidence of widespread starvation, though nutrition levels were low. No firm evidence of how many were starving.

Warns UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome: ``The time to move grain to far west of Sudan is now. Last year donors were too late. Famine could reappear in the west if we don't act right away.''

Ethiopia: UN truck fleet growing. Sixty trucks now working. Donated grain still moving out of Assab port at faster pace than two months ago. US aid officials encountering some harrassment, some delays in travel permits from military Marxist government.

Encouraging news: Botswana (1 million people in territory as big as France) suffering fifth year of drought -- but managing it well, UN and US officials agree. Unlike neighbors, country is at peace.

Relatively open, democratic government under President Quett K. Masire. Country's good management singled out for praise by former World Bank chief Robert McNamara at recent Congressional hearing. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays

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