Africa Experts Call for More Than Relief as Famine Recurs

FAMINE warning flags are popping up across Africa again. And aid experts and African officials are calling afresh for assistance that goes beyond international bailouts to tackle the roots of hunger.

``We don't want to rely on handouts only.... Development assistance is the only way out [of famine from] the recurrent droughts we face,'' says Ethiopian diplomat Wondimu Assamnew, whose country is suffering from drought.

About 22 million people in Africa need emergency food aid this year, says Francis Mwanza, a spokesman for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. That compares with 27 million last year, when Somalia was still recovering from famine, and Ethiopia was still dealing with large numbers of people displaced by a long civil war.

Last year, civil conflict was the most common reason for food aid to Africa. This year, about a third of the need can be attributed to crop failures, mostly due to drought, Mr. Mwanza notes.

Donor pledges to the WFP for these emergencies are falling far short of the agency's targets. Africa is not the only continent with emergencies, and many donor nations are having economic problems at home.

But even as more money is sought for the current food crisis in Africa, some UN officials and Western specialists agree with Mr. Assamnew about the need to go beyond temporary rescues.

``We satisfy ourselves with relief and humanitarian assistance,'' says Vincent O'Reilly, who is the head of UNICEF in Kenya. Nomads and farmers in the country's parched northern areas are suffering from drought.

Addressing root causes

Mr. O'Reilly and others interviewed want more attention and spending on some of the root causes of hunger in Africa, including rapid population growth, soil erosion, lack of irrigated lands for farmers, and the nomad's unhealthy livestock.

``Addressing population growth ... is fundamental in dealing with drought and poverty,'' says a European relief official. But attracting donor support for development issues is an uphill struggle, he adds.

UN spending over the past 10 years has tilted away from development toward relief, O'Reilly says. If the trend is not reversed, despite continuing emergencies, ``We'll see the cycle [of famine] constantly repeating itself.''

Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania - all eastern and central African countries - are among the countries in need of major emergency food deliveries this year, mostly because of drought, civil war, ethnic strife, or a combination of factors, Mwanza says.

Mozambique, Angola, and Lesotho in southern Africa, and the West African states of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone also need such help, he says.

He says the portion of WFP funds spent on relief has climbed steadily in recent years to 60 percent of its total budget, due to the increasing number of crises. But in 1992, WFP adopted a strategy in Africa of coupling relief with food-related development efforts such as irrigation projects, even in countries not at peace.

E. Africa Development aid

In parts of southern Sudan, despite the civil war, the UN has helped carry out a major measles immunization and cattle inoculation program, O'Reilly says.

Relief officials say a major government offensive against rebel groups is building in southern Sudan, which threatens to displace large numbers of people, increasing the need for emergency food in the region. The UN has just launched an appeal for $270 million for Sudan, most of it for the south, compared with $190 million last year for the country.

Since the rebel victory in Ethiopia in 1991, the new transitional government has removed restrictions that slowed farm production and food sales, and has provided loans to enable farmers to purchase fertilizer. The transitional government also has carried out soil-erosion control projects, some of which were started under the previous regime.

Yet the WFP says some 2.6 million Ethiopians face ``substantial food shortages'' this year due to erratic rainfall, desperate pesticide shortages, and ethnic conflicts. In addition, Ethiopia has had an influx of returnees from Eritrea, which gained independence from Ethiopia in a referendum last year. Ethiopia also has the burden of hundreds of thousands of now-unemployed soldiers from the former regime.

In Eritrea, the new government has put many rural residents to work building small dams and terraces on hilly farmland, paying them in donated food. Most donor aid has been for relief, not development, however, says Teumezghi Tessfa, an Eritrean diplomat in Nairobi.

``As an Eritrean, I don't want to depend on food aid,'' he says.

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