Washington makes Africa aid a higher priority

The US pledges $98 million to help with the worst drought since 1992.

A decade after a devastating drought in southern Africa put reports of famine in American living rooms, the wrenching photos may be about to flood TV screens again.

The worst drought since 1992 is hitting six countries of southeast Africa. Although the numbers of people at risk are lower than a decade ago, in some ways conditions for responding to the crisis are worse this time – reflecting the deepening impact of AIDS, as well as misguided government reforms in some countries that have cut food production and have made food-aid distribution more difficult.

In response to an appeal for aid, the United States is coming forward with the largest pledge so far – $98 million toward the $611 million the United Nations says will be needed over coming weeks to stave off disaster. The first 40,000 tons of US food aid – enough to feed 2.4 million people – is scheduled to arrive in Durban, South Africa, on Sunday.

While relief officials hope to see still more assistance from the US, the American commitment reflects the Bush administration's desire to squelch impressions it has forgotten Africa. It also helps demonstrate that it is serious about helping developing countries not only on that continent but elsewhere, too.

Indeed, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill returned last week from an eight-day visit to Central Asia, on the heels of a trip to Africa with Irish rock singer Bono. Next on his itinerary is South America. Although he has braved criticism at home that he was globe-trotting while US financial markets crashed, Mr. O'Neill offers no excuses for his travels, saying they are a long-term investment in more effective development efforts.

Far-reaching effects

In fact, O'Neill and other US officials say that the Bush administration's commitment to an extra $5 billion a year in global development assistance could help reduce hopelessness born of poverty and joblessness, thus potentially lessening future terrorism threats.

One of the goals of the US effort is to foster efficient, grass-roots development programs that just say no to corruption, which has held back a number of African nations for years. In fact, poor or even corrupt local leadership has in some ways made the natural disaster of famine worse.

For example, Zimbabwe, once southern Africa's grain basket, is this time the worst hit, as the land-redistribution programs of President Robert Mugabe, along with a lack of rain, have cut deeply into production.

Policy decisions over the past year have converted Zimbabwe "from one of the grain baskets of Africa to one of its basket cases," says Ross Mountain, director of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In Washington to drum up US support to avert a disaster, Mr. Mountain says famine threatens Zimbabwe, plus Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia – countries, he adds, that are "not well-endowed to start and are affected by the worst AIDS crisis anywhere in the world."

What that means in practical terms, he says, is that whereas a decade ago there was a fair share of the productive-age population to assist with relief efforts, this time that base is weaker.

More of the population's time is taken up caring for AIDS patients. "It's a tremendous drain on the time and talents of those looking after" their sick relatives, he says. With rates of HIV infection surpassing 25 percent in the worst-hit areas, "there are many more households headed by grandparents and children."

View from the UN

Mountain's mission to Washington is part of the $611 million appeal by the UN. Asking the world "to avert another human tragedy on the African continent," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a statement "there is still an opportunity to avert famine and to save lives, but the window is closing rapidly."

The World Food Program has so far received pledges for $166 million total, including the $98 million from the US.

The famine threat is hitting southern Africa at a time of overall modest economic growth and general democratization. That leaves some experts worrying that a calamity would set back the incipient optimism for development the region had produced recently.

"There had been some rays of hope, but there is potential for this to leave countries slipping back again," says Kenneth Simler, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.

Could be a saving grace

Other experts say the recent progress that some of the drought-affected countries have made in terms of development and democratic governance will help them weather this disaster better than they might have.

Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the UN Development Program, cites Mozambique, which, after a devastating civil war that ended in 1992, "is determined to turn its back on that past and move forward."

He notes that Mozambique has a lower HIV infection rate than its neighbors, a high rate of women parliamentarians, and "a straightforward and modest leadership focused on delivering basic needs." Mr. Malloch Brown adds, "These qualities will help them get through this."

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