We Must Act Now to Prevent Disaster in the Horn of Africa

Drought and famine again besiege an oft-troubled region

WE have time to avert yet another humanitarian crisis in the greater Horn of Africa, consisting of Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi. While it is hard to focus on anything but the tragedy in Rwanda, it is also a part of the greater Horn and can be shielded from the wave of drought and famine all our sources tell us is coming.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel throughout the Horn of Africa, including Rwanda, and then to sites in Europe to participate in an unprecedented series of meetings about the threatened Horn. This was a presidential mission consisting of United States Agency for International Development chief Brian Atwood, several presidents of the world's best-known humanitarian organizations, and selected members of the US press corps. Our mission was to convince African leaders, European nations, and international organizations to join the US in heading off the next African famine before it starts. While no one will ever win a Nobel prize for averting disaster, millions of dollars and lives can be saved if the world takes a leap of faith and outthinks the food crisis that threatens to appear shortly in the Horn.

Is there anything different about this crisis compared with the great disasters and famines of 1964, '74, and '84? Not really, and that is exactly why we need to approach this one systematically. If we wait, our only recourse will be to trot out the tired appeals and pictures of starving children that have contributed to what I call ``famine fatigue'' among donors.

America has a special interest in this proactive approach. In as many as 20 complex humanitarian emergencies in the world today, mostly in Africa, I have found the US footing well over half the bill for assistance and rehabilitation.

While I am proud that the US takes a leadership role, it is time to impress upon our donor partners that they need to contribute more to disaster efforts.

Armed with information gathered from sources as diverse as satellites and migration patterns of herdsmen unchanged over the centuries, we set off to meet with the presidents of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya; the World Food Program; the International Red Cross; the Food and Agricultural Organization; the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs; the UN High Commission for Refugees; and the humanitarian arm of the European Union.

We traveled to sites of encroaching desertification, flew over cultivated but unproductive fields, inspected aspects of the international food assistance pipeline, and talked with refugees already routed by either drought or war. We saw for ourselves that there are serious humanitarian assistance problems calling for urgent and immediate attention by the US and the international donor community. I saw the horror in Rwanda with its spillover effects into Tanzania and Burundi. Rwanda is suffering a human catastrophe of staggering dimensions. Virtually the entire population of over 8 million has been directly affected by the crisis that broke out after the double assassination of the Rwandan and Burundian presidents on April 6 this year. Since that date, a war between Hutu and Tutsi tribes has caused up to 500,000 deaths. I saw a scene of carnage on a horrific scale. Piles of bodies litter an otherwise beautiful river creating a scene out of the movie, ``Apocalypse Now.''

We confirmed the worsening situation in southern Sudan - a result of the continuing Sudanese government military offensive. We now know much about the serious food deficits projected this summer for Eritrea and Ethiopia. We came to understand the urgent need for food aid for people at risk in Uganda and Djibouti. And everywhere we heard of the serious congestion at the port of Mombasa, which is delaying the movement of relief commodities and imported food and fertilizer into Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and southern Sudan.

I am hopeful that our mission will be a success. Some of the African countries in the Horn have new and dynamic presidents determined to ease the relentless hunger and disease that affects their people. European donors and several humanitarian arms of the UN have been instilled with a sense of urgency to focus early on the threat to the Horn. I finished the week with a feeling that we had brokered an agreement among the organizations that operate in the Horn to work from the same plan and to start immediately. This means not only fulfilling existing pledges for food, but also examining and correcting deficiencies in response times and other aspects of our bureaucracies.

Within the greater Horn region there are an estimated 11,464,000 people affected by drought, 5,517,000 internally displaced, and 2,425,000 refugees. In the final analysis, our success is their salvation. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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