For almost six months, the World Food Program has been warning of an impending disaster in southern Africa, where at least seven countries are facing severe food shortages, but international donors have been slow to respond.
"We've worked in a number of these crises: the famines in Ethiopia and in Northern Kenya, and the volcanic eruption in Goma [Congo]," says Dr. Wilfred Mlay, vice president for Africa of World Vision. "In all those crises, the international community has been quick to respond. That hasn't happened here."
Aid workers and experts say the response to the current crisis in Southern Africa, which threatens an estimated 13 million people, has been hampered by donor fatigue, an unwillingness by rich nations to accept the scope of the crisis, and skepticism about the governments of countries receiving food aid.
So far, the WFP has only received pledges for about $135 million, about one-quarter of the total they estimate they will need to feed people during the next nine months. The US and Britain, the top two donors, have given $98 million and close to $30 million, respectively.
One of the problems, they say, is that the current problem in Southern Africa is a slow-motion crisis. Unlike wars or volcanic eruptions that cause large, visible displacements of people, food shortages like the current one in Southern Africa sneak up gradually.
While the slow onset gives the international community time to respond before people actually begin dying in large numbers, it also makes it more difficult to convince donors of the scope of the crisis. Appeals like the WFP's current one for more than $500 million are made on projections of need, and often those projections aren't believed, say experts.
"Government donors have a problem with the assessments made by agencies such as the WFP and don't always regard them as objective assessments of need," says Frances Stevenson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute in London.
By the time the media starts printing pictures of starving people the proof is irrefutable, it's too late to preempt the crisis since it can takes months for food to get from its source to people in need.
Food donated by the United States to Malawi, for example, must be shipped from the US to a port in Mozambique and then taken by truck over as much as 700 miles of often treacherous roads, a process that takes months if all goes smoothly.
Food destined for hard-hit areas in the mountainous country of Lesotho must be shipped into a South African port, trucked in over mountain roads, and then often taken by donkey to remote villages. The coming rainy season, which begins around October, will also slow the distribution of food.
The WFP admits that the crisis in Southern Africa has not yet reached famine proportions, because this year's harvest, while poor, was enough to feed people for a few months. Their fear, however, is that if donations don't arrive soon, they won't be able to get food to people before starvation sets in.
Although the startling images of starvation that emerged from the Ethiopian famine in the late 1980s shocked the world, aid workers say that crisis created an unhealthy image of what a famine looks like.
The goal of the aid community is to intervene before a situation becomes a crisis, but in the post-Ethiopia era no one will believe that a crisis exists until the deaths begin.
"It's hard to convince donors of the situation without pictures of starving children, and we didn't have those in February," when the WFP first began saying this would be a major crisis, said Chris Conrad, regional director for CARE.
Another reason for the slow response, experts say, is a skepticism by donor nations about the governments receiving aid. While natural factors such as flood and drought have played some role in the current Southern African food crisis, political instability, war, and government incompetence has made what might just have been a bad year for crops into a humanitarian disaster.
Zimbabwe, one of the worst hit countries, used to be a net exporter of grain and a country to which less prosperous neighbors turned in time of need. But more than two years of land seizures by government-backed squatters have devastated the country's commercial agriculture sector and human-rights groups have repeatedly alleged that food aid is denied to supporters of the opposition party.
The governments of Zambia, Malawi, and Lesotho are considered corrupt and nontransparent, and Angola recently endedthree decades of civil war. Although Zambia and Lesotho both recently held elections that have boosted international confidence in them, all four countries have been governed by long-standing regimes considered more interested in increasing their own wealth than in helping their people. Angola, for example, is an oil rich country and one of the continent's wealthiest nations.
Although this attitude generally affects development aid more than disaster-relief funds, privately, donors acknowledge that they are concerned their aid will line the pockets of the elite rather than the stomachs of the poor.
"There's not the same kind of sympathy as when the crisis is attributed to natural factors," says Dr. Mlay.
Ultimately, however, aid workers and experts say the roots of the current crisis go far deeper than the international community's inability to mobilize rapidly in times of crisis. Much of the problem lies in the world's failure to support development efforts between crises. Mr. Conrad, of CARE, says that the current crisis can be seen in part as a failure on the part of the international community to help the region recover fully from its last food shortage in 1992.
"The problem with our response to Africa is that it's like treating a patient with a small dose," said Dr. Mlay. "It's just enough to keep the patient alive, but not enough to make it better."