THE sight of giant cargo planes landing in Moscow with food and medicine helps to ease the anxiety of the many Soviet citizens who face food shortages. It also could help maintain peace and security in that sprawling country. But the rush of Western governments and private relief agencies to aid the USSR sends a cold message to millions of sub-Saharan Africans experiencing outright hunger and starvation. Are their lives any less important?
Six years ago, the world mounted African relief efforts that may have been the greatest display of large-scale humanitarianism in history. Yet the threat of starvation in Africa is as great today as it was then - perhaps greater. The food shortages in part of the Soviet Union, however difficult, pale by comparison.
Ethiopian relief officials believe that 2 million people in Eritrea and 2.4 million in Tigre are severely affected by famine due to the continuing war and successive bad harvests. The agreement between Addis Ababa and rebel forces to resume food shipments through Massawa could represent the first substantive step toward stability. But only a major mobilization of emergency relief and logistic support for its distribution will prevent widespread loss of life.
In Sudan, 10 million civilians risk starvation. A bold UN relief program was instituted, but has met with very limited success. Unless the international community undertakes a high-priority effort to mediate the seemingly interminable Sudanese civil war and negotiate with both the government and the southern-based rebels for safe passage of critical supplies in western and central Sudan, thousands more may die.
At least 1.9 million people face starvation in Angola, due to a combination of war and drought. Last Nov. 1 the UN Special Relief Program began delivering 110,000 tons of food to people in the central and southern regions after the Angolan government and UNITA rebels ceased hostilities long enough to allow convoys of vehicles to travel through ``corridors of peace.'' The continued success of this emergency operation depends on both the durability of the corridors agreement and major financial support from the international community.
The UN and nongovernmental organizations have appealed for $136 million in emergency aid to assist 3.9 million people in Mozambique - more than a quarter of that country's population - ravaged by the dual scourges of war and drought. Various sources, including the US State Department, have documented the deaths of tens of thousands of Mozambicans in recent years. But the West has not yet addressed Mozambique's most immediate needs: aircraft to deliver food, medical equipment, blankets and clothing for people in Niassa and other hard-hit provinces.
Elsewhere in Africa - in Liberia, Somalia, Chad, and Rwanda - civil war has displaced thousands more and starvation has become commonplace. But we cannot afford to accept the deaths of thousands as a fact of life while we sit and wait for an end to the hostilities. Few would accept this fate for the people of the USSR, where ethnic tensions and conflicts also run high and where much attention has been diverted these days.
Much of the blame for the crises of hunger in Africa rests squarely on the shoulders of Africa's leaders, who spend more than $12 billion annually on weapons and armed forces. Most of this goes toward protecting despots and elites from their own people. Common citizens from Ivory Coast to Kenya have seen the walls crumble in Eastern Europe and now more than ever long for a respite from corruption, dictatorship, and poverty. The West can contribute to Africa's progress toward democracy and help resolve the hunger crisis by halting the sales of weapons, such as those used by the Sudanese army and the Angolan rebels.
A successful long-term campaign against hunger will also entail Western nations' ceasing to prop up dictatorial regimes. Africa's development must be predicated on the emergence of democratic institutions, respect for human rights, cessation of wars, suspension or forgiveness of much of the continent's $184 billion debt, large-scale literacy training and educational programs, and incentives to local farmers to grow more food for internal consumption. This is a mammoth project, but the $12 billion spent currently on military aid could make a sizable dent.
Parts of Africa are beginning to emerge from their despotic past, but the deaths and suffering of innocents continues. Because almost all parties to Africa's conflicts use food as a weapon, the UN and private relief agencies should carry out the distribution of assistance and long-term development aid. The US and Western nations should respond to massive famines in Africa with at least the same urgency as they have shown toward the bread lines in the Soviet Union.