THE loss of US Rep. Mickey Leland while on a flight in Ethiopia is being noted with genuine sadness and sympathy by leading political figures ranging from George Bush to Jesse Jackson. The Texas congressman was a Democrat through and through, but his care and compassion knew no partisan bounds. Long after the shock of those TV images of starving African refugees had worn off and the media and the public were on to other issues, Mr. Leland kept at it. He pushed the US government and international agencies to stay focused on a human problem of tragic proportions. As chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger, he went back to African villages and refugee camps - not exactly a junket - time and again to see what more could be done.
That's what his last trip was for, and it's clear that much more should be done for hungry refugees in Africa. As Robert M. Press reports in today's Monitor, civil wars in eastern and southern Africa and a border dispute in west Africa have displaced 4 million people. About half that number are in Horn of Africa countries - Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan - where government troops have been battling rebel groups and where a series of famines has taken a human toll as well. The greatest concentration of refugees is in Ethiopia, where Somalians and Sudanese have been going to avoid factional fighting. In Ethiopia itself, 200,000 have been displaced by civil war in the northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea.
Three things are needed now. First, more relief aid from the US and other benefactors, particularly if the lack of rainfall this year means serious crop shortfalls.
Second, better management of the aid by those countries' governments and international agencies like the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. There have been reports of moldy food, unused tents rotting in the sun, and some refugees using multiple ration cards to hoard food. That has to stop.
Third, and most important, the roots of the disruption and displacement that cause so many refugees need to be better addressed. Reports that the new military leaders in the Sudan are serious about ending six years of civil war and negotiations between the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Miriam and rebels in the north of Ethiopia are at least hopeful signs.
If the developed world's focus can be kept on these three areas, if diplomatic efforts and assistance can be brought to bear on behalf of hungry refugees, then Mickey Leland's good work will continue as it should.