Famine Shadows Africa's Progress

IT is a time of profound change all across Africa. A second wind of liberation is sweeping across the continent as pro-democracy movements demand changes in repressive political and economic systems. People in many countries are experiencing certain freedoms for the first time in their lives.

As these opportunities for peace, development, and democracy unfold, an ominous shadow threatens to wipe out much of what has been achieved. A famine caused by drought and war has put 53 million people at risk of starvation. The world has responded inadequately.

The worst drought in at least 50 years has devastated the capacity of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and South Africa to feed themselves. Zimbabwe and South Africa, usually the bread-baskets of southern Africa, are importing unprecedented amounts of maize. The entire region will import at least 11 million tons of foodstuffs during 1992. Compare this to the height of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980's, when "only" two million tons were imported.

Immediate consequences include shifting resources in Namibia from housing and education for the poor to food imports; half of the village wells in Malawi going dry; and water shortages forcing the evacuation of entire cities in Zimbabwe. Longterm ramifications include the loss of livestock, seed, and agricultural equipment, the overcrowding of cities, and the diversion of resources from health, education, and fledgling industrialization programs. All this will impact productivity for years to come.

One of the longest-running civil wars in Africa has devastated Sudan, leaving 4.7 million people internally displaced and 7.2 million needing emergency assistance. A recently-ended 30-year war for independence left up to 85 percent of Eritreans dependent on emergency food. Over half of Somalia's population needs emergency assistance in what the United States Agency for International Development calls "the worst humanitarian disaster in the world." In mid-June the envoy from the United Nations said that 5 ,000 children under the age of five die every day in Somalia.

Severe drought in northern Kenya has been exacerbated by the arrival of thousands of refugees from conflict in Sudan, Ethiopia, and especially Somalia. Repeated, cyclical drought has taken its toll on the latter three countries, in addition to Eritrea. Soil erosion, deforestation, livestock depletion, and constant civilian displacement have reduced the ability of vulnerable rural populations to cope. This has led to increased conflicts over a diminishing resource base. In western Sudan, near-anarchy has resulted from this sort of environmental conflict.

Though millions of African people remain continuously threatened by starvation, the vast majority survive. To build on the tremendous ingenuity and survival mechanisms of Africa's people, the huge strides that have been made internationally in support of Africa's fight against famine must be recognized.

THE response to famine is much quicker than even a few years ago. There is increasing recognition of the need for famine prevention activities, rather than just famine relief. The UN has appointed a humanitarian coordinator for all relief operations to simplify and quicken the response. Congress passed legislation that will allow resources to be shifted from military aid to emergency needs in the Horn of Africa. Much more is still needed.

The US should further reprogram aid away from security assistance to famine relief. Eighty million dollars for disaster aid to Africa, approved by the House, should be approved by the Senate and signed by President Bush.

Aid should go beyond relief to reconstruction. US assistance should be increased to both the Southern Africa Development Coordination Conference for improved transport networks and food security planning, and to nongovernmental organizations for famine prevention activities such as credit for food crops, drought-resistant seeds, improved water management, and environmental restoration.

Beyond relief and reconstruction, increased US involvement in conflict resolution and locally defined democratization could do much to prevent further famines. Action at the highest level of the UN and the US could help end conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Mozambique, as would technical assistance for democratization processes under way in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Angola.

Throughout the continent, Africans have made tremendous sacrifices in their struggle for food and freedom. It would be unconscionable not to support them in their time of need.

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