Hunger Fight Takes Modern Twist in Sudan

Satellites and savvy use of media now help aid agencies respond faster to those in need. First food drops began in May.

Ngor Thiep, a thin man of Sudan's Dinka tribe, stands in Ajiep market, surrounded by people gazing at his lone bull. In April, Arab militiamen attacked his village, killed his stepbrother, and stole all but one of his 40 cattle. Now faced with hunger, he is left with no choice but to sell the bull.

"This is not normal," notes Mawiir Nyok of Sudan's Relief and Rehabilitation Committee. When the Dinkas resort to slaughtering their cattle, he explains, "you know it's pure hunger."

Drought and civil war have combined to bring famine to Africa's largest country. An estimated 350,000 people in the great savannah of Bahr el Ghazal - all of them Dinkas - are near starvation. Little rain for two years and a 15-year war - the longest in Africa - have kept a multitude in near-constant flight.

Ten years ago, famine also swept across southern Sudan, killing hundreds of thousands. A decade later, aid agencies were able to move faster.

A decade ago, access to the starving was not easy. The Islamic government in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, is fighting with separatist rebels in the Christian and animist south. With famine possibly being used as a weapon, aid agencies were denied entry to stricken areas for a year.

This time, the minute government clearance was given in May for five aid planes to cover the whole of Bahr el Ghazal, the relief operation was up and running.

This was largely thanks to Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), a colossal humanitarian project that was set up as a response to the 1988 famine and has since become a permanent feature of the Sudanese panorama. Unlike 10 years ago, when aid workers began in a vacuum, the mechanism put in place by OLS ensured the delivery of food on fairly short notice.

While aid is on its way, the emergency is far from over. The rains that should have come in April are late, and fighting has left farmers unable to plant crops. But the crisis has highlighted significant changes in aid organizations, from their ability to forecast disaster to their skillful use of the media for fund-raising.

Once under way, the emergency operation followed a familiar pattern: The World Food Program, one of the two coordinating agencies of OLS, launched an appeal for $68.5 million. The press was flown in. Pictures of malnourished children made the rounds of newspapers and magazines. Within weeks, the WFP collected $17 million.

In Ajiep, a town in Bahr el Ghazal, as many as 10,000 hungry Dinkas walked for days to be present at a food drop. A low-flying Hercules chartered by the WFP dropped 50 tons of grain and beans, and the distribution began.

Thousands of women knelt in the thin white dust hoping to qualify as recipients. By late afternoon, clusters of women tried to break past the security barrier and make a run for the food. They were whipped back by officers from the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association in charge of food distribution. In the end, close to 80 percent walked away with nothing.

Among them is Ajok Lual, a mother of three who walked four days to reach Ajiep. She and her family have been subsisting on roots and wild fruit. She knew the aid would not be much but, she says, she "had no other alternative. I tried my luck, but I did not make it."

Once a subordinate agency of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization with a total of three press officers, the WFP has evolved into a media-savvy leviathan based at a sumptuous marbled headquarters in Rome.

Its director general, Catherine Bertini, is a petite woman without a trace of makeup who was formerly in charge of the US food-stamp program. For six years she has worked to change the agency from a little-known entity notorious for its soporific press reports to a highly public organization. "Six years ago we had trouble printing T-shirts with our logo," she says. "Now we put out these slick brochures telling people what we do." The importance of the media, she adds, became clear during the Ethiopian famine of 1984, in which roughly 1 million people died. Before journalists went in, appeals for aid went largely unnoticed.

Observers say such widespread reliance on media coverage on the part of aid organizations has its unwelcome side effects.

One of them is the increasing use of hyperbole. In Sudan's case, the term "famine" was used by a few aid groups to stimulate media interest. "We try to be very careful; we don't want to overhype," says Ms. Bertini.

Similarly, aid agencies announced that 350,000 people, a third of Bahr el Ghazal's population, risked starvation. But with no reliable population census, the number turned out to be little more than an educated estimate.

"We have come to the point where each time we need a circus show to mobilize resources," notes a Rome-based aid worker. Early warning, he adds, is simply not enough: "People have to be shown children starving, they need to see the pictures and read the horror stories."

This has tended to undermine the efficacy of early-warning systems for fund-raising at a time when technology allows forecasts of unprecedented accuracy.

"Unlike 10 years ago, we are now able to work with satellite images, " says Liliana Balbi, one of the directors of the FAO's Early Warning Unit. "With Sudan, we were able to look at those images, see what the crop situation was, and estimate that about 70 percent of Bar el Ghazal's population was in immediate need of food aid."

The first warning, Ms. Balbi pointed out, came in the FAO's September report. But it was only in April, when the first photographers wandered out into the exhausted landscape of Bhar el Ghazal, that money started rolling in.

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