The forgotten 27 million

Glenn McNatt

April 30, 1991|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Glenn McNatt is an Evening Sun editorial writer.

THE WORLD reacted with compassion for the 2 million Kurds menaced by Saddam Hussein's genocidal vengeance and with medical aid for 800,000 Latin Americans threatened by a deadly cholera epidemic.

Yet little has been noted of the devastating famine now spreading across Africa that has put some 27 million people at risk of starvation.

Why the blind eye to GlennMcNatttheir suffering?

While the world's attention was focused on the plight of Iraqi Kurds, a far more serious human tragedy was unfolding in drought-plagued Sudan, where between 9 million and 11 million lives are at risk because of food shortages and civil war.

In neighboring Ethiopia, whose Marxist regime teeters on the verge of collapse, another 6 million people may starve as a result of drought and civil war that already have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past decade.

In Mozambique, government officials last year asked for only about half the international food aid they sought in 1989. Even so, that famine-stricken nation received only half the amount requested.

And in Somalia, an assault on the capital by Eritrean and Tigrean separatist rebels drove all remaining relief workers and European diplomats out of the country at Christmas. Most aid vehicles, offices and supplies were destroyed or stolen after President Mohammed Siad Barre was toppled in January. With fighting still going on throughout the country, more than 2 million people face starvation.

There's more. The political upheaval in Liberia, which has been racked by fighting for 14 months, has turned more than 1.5

million of that country's 2.3 million citizens into refugees. Many will die of disease or starvation unless help arrives.

In all, the United Nations estimates that up to 27 million Africans are in danger of starving to death this year. Yet the world community seems content to stand idly by and watch the tragedy unfold.

Africa, so the conventional wisdom goes, is an international basket case incapable of extricating itself from decades of political instability and official corruption that have rendered the results of relief efforts temporary at best, futile at worst.

The region is prey to recurring famines, despite the fact that food production on the continent is increasing, largely because authoritarian governments have used food to quell long-running insurgencies and stifle separatist movements within their borders.

Relief officials say that people in the developed countries, distracted by recession and mounting social problems at home, are experiencing "donor fatigue," a generalized reluctance to get involved in a region whose problems seem intractable.

Yet such attitudes grossly misrepresent the reality of what is occurring on the African continent. The stirrings of political democratization, honored more in the breach than in practice, are sweeping across Africa with a speed rivaling that of the recently liberated nations of Eastern Europe.

Last year democratic governments came to power for the first time in Mali and Cape Verde. In English-speaking Africa, Zambia and Nigeria have promised free elections, and last year 14 of the continent's former French colonies were moving in that direction.

With increasing democratization has come a belated recognition that economic reform and political liberalization are inextricably intertwined. Africans are increasingly aware that those countries with the best economic record over the last 20 years have either been democratic or at least benignly authoritarian, while those with the worst had corrupt and capricious dictatorships.

Clearly Africa has the potential for economic growth, agricultural productivity and democracy. Africans no more deserve to be written off for the failures of their corrupt officials and military strongmen than do the Kurds for the stupidity of Saddam Hussein.

And yet an army of journalists with television cameras has descended on the Kurds in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq. We now recognize their anguish but are all but blinded to the misery washing over the planet's largest continent.

It is a myopia the developed world can ill afford. We can and must help Africa's famine victims because ultimately it is in our own interest to do so. As we are learning even now in the aftermath of the gulf conflict, global catastrophes have a way of exacting terrible revenge against those who ignore them.

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