Relief groups: lesson from famine is need for preparedness

International relief organizations, stretched to their limits during the past two years of coping with the immediate needs of the African famine, are eager to redirect their efforts back to long-term development. So says Philip Johnston, executive director of CARE, the world's largest nongovernmental relief organization. Dr. Johnston adds that these efforts should have a focus.

``The organizations,'' he says, ``must translate the lessons learned from the famine into long-term development projects that, when the need arises, are easily transferred to emergency operations.''

According to officials from a number of relief organizations, including UNICEF, CARE, and The Hunger Project, there are three elements that could lead toward greater disaster preparedness: the supportive political will of Africa's leaders; a better-educated donor community; and an increased role of foreign private enterprise.

The role that local political will plays in both relief assistance and long-term development was an important lesson relearned during the famine that began in 1984. According to Johnston, the international community failed to mobilize Africa's leaders to use many of the lessons learned during the 1972-73 drought to prepare for the recent disaster.

``What to the Western world are the very simplest of things -- bridges, warehouses, communication systems within each country -- all these would revolutionize the whole process of rendering rapid assistance,'' he says.

While Africans might welcome warehouses and bridges, costs for such projects are excessive. Many African leaders, says Johnston, channel money away from such improvements, because they do not consider disaster preparedness a priority. In addition, many of them fear that developments such as communications systems will aid rebel insurgencies within their borders.

``It was very clear,'' says one worker involved in emergency famine relief to Sudan, ``that when the political will of the African leaders was there, the food got through. When it was not, the food did not.''

Relief officials say the recent United Nations session, which adopted a five-year program to revive Africa's devastated economy, provided a forum to reemphasize the need to be prepared for disaster.

Self-sufficiency is the goal of long-term development. Throughout this famine, the need to better educate the public concerning the contribution that nongovernmental organizations make to Africa's long-term development has become more evident.

While money for relief flows in times of emergency, in general money for long-term development trickles.

This, say relief workers, is the result of public misconceptions about their work. Workers directly involved in long-term development projects have found that many donors give only in times of emergency, completely unaware of successful long-term development projects the organizations have been implementing for decades.

``The recent upsurge in funds did not really increase budgets, because it went mostly into direct relief, not long-term development,'' says Ted Howard, a spokesman for The Hunger Project.

``We could have taken every cent and spent it taking care of today's problems only, then worried about tomorrow at some other time,'' says CARE's Johnston. ``But our board of directors decided, I believe wisely, that 50 percent of all resources assigned to the tragedy would be spent on life-saving operations and 50 percent would be spent on the recovery phase.''

Other agencies, however, fell under public pressure to use all funds donated for famine relief immediately, leaving little money in reserve for recovery operations. The public needs to recognize, says Johnson, that these organizations no longer operate with volunteers. In fact, many development projects require technical specialists, such as agronomists and biologists. Payroll expenses have risen accordingly.

One way to ease the budget crunch in the future, say experts, is to increase the role that foreign corporations play in African development. Relief workers often find themselves charged with tasks for which they have few resources and little experience. A recent example of this involved the transportation of badly needed food and supplies to African famine victims. If foreign transportation and trucking enterprises had been commercially active in Africa, they would have been available to render transportation services with greater efficiency and less expense than the relief community.

Unfortunately, says one transportation specialist, many corporations see no money to be made in Africa. The tendency has been to provide corporate humanitarian assistance by sending machinery, trucks, and tools -- without the people or spare parts to operate them.

There are, however, some corporate officials who, though not yet ready to establish operations in Africa, recognize there will one day be a market on that continent for their products. Their corporations invest, therefore, in the long-term development projects.

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