As African famines approach again, donations from war-focused West dwindle

April 21, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

NAIROBI, Kenya -- With the West in a recession, Mozambique's leaders were wary last year of asking for too much emergency aid even though, as one of the world's poorest countries, the nation was facing another year of dire need and possible famine.

They put out an international appeal for about half the food they requested in 1989. They were still disappointed: Only about half of the grain they asked for arrived.

The trend continues in Sudan, where a drought rivaling Ethiopia's 1984 disaster is shaping up to claim as many as 4 million lives. There, slightly more than 2 percent of the needed 1.3 million tons of critical food aid has arrived so far this year.

Many African leaders and relief and development professionals say that as Africa's problems worsen, the developed world is contributing a smaller share of the continent's relief needs, and its attention span for the African crisis is growing shorter. The phenomenon has become so pronounced that Africa hands have a term for it: "donor fatigue."

Faced with African economies that seem to slump lower every year, famines that recur with regularity, and government policies that foster corruption and neglect instead of development, private donors are increasingly looking for new recipients. Many in the United States and Europe are also spending more at home, as pressure grows to address neglected domestic ills like poor urban education, drug abuse and homelessness.

"Africa's just off the map," says C. Payne Lucas, head of Africare, a Washington-based aid group. "People think Africa is marginalized, that it doesn't have any potential."

This trend was exacerbated as the Persian Gulf war diverted more attention and money from the problems of Africa. War-related expenses were a factor, for example, in the British government's announcement that much of the $56 million it has allocated for famine relief would not be available until April, the beginning of the next fiscal year (when it may come too late to be of much use).

Not only were the developed world's money and attention diverted to the gulf for more than seven months, but so was an important tool for documenting the continent's anguish: television crews.

As dire as this year's Sudanese famine appears, relief specialists say there is little hope of mobilizing international concern if the problem is not graphically illustrated.

"Until the TV scenes show up again there won't be the same public outcry back home," says a prominent aid official in East Africa. "Now, all the TV cameras are in the gulf."

But the gulf war is not all of it. Among the Western public, particularly in the United States, interest in Africa's problems has been dwindling for years. Private relief groups relying on individual donations show sharply falling contributions.

Aid officials working in famine-stricken corners of the region like Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan say deliveries of donated food are later, and lighter, than in past years although the need is greater. When unrest and chaos erupt in a needy place -- a common occurrence all over Africa -- aid agencies are quicker to withdraw and may be slower to return.

This is the case in Somalia, where a rebel advance on the capital of Mogadishu drove all remaining relief workers and European diplomats out of the country at Christmastime. Aid vehicles, offices and supplies suffered wholesale destruction and theft in the aftermath of the ouster in January of President Mohammed Siad Barre. With fighting still going on throughout the country, almost no relief work is taking place. Meanwhile, more than 2 million people face starvation in one of the world's poorest countries.

"Nobody's going to go back in there and just bring in tons of resources," says Charles Laskey, head of the Somalia office of CARE, from his temporary refuge in Nairobi. "You won't find any agencies or governments saying, 'Let's set it all back up again.' They'll go in cautiously."

The collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the economic crisis in the Soviet Union mean those areas now compete with Africa for foreign aid. The Soviet Union this year ended its subsidy of petroleum shipments to Mozambique, a step that will cost the African nation more than $140 million a year.

And while African aid from most Western donor countries has not dropped because of the demands of Eastern Europe's reconstruction, "it hasn't gone up," remarks Jack Titsworth, head of the Canada International Development Agency's East Africa office in Nairobi. That means the gap between Africa's needs and the money available to meet them is widening.

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