African nations expected to need food aid for years

November 17, 1991|By Christian Science Monitor

NAIROBI, Kenya -- While massive food relief is reaching many of the 30 million Africans facing starvation this year, thousands may still be lost because of physical and political barriers hindering food deliveries, according to United Nations and other relief officials.

These experts caution that large-scale food relief may be needed in Africa for years to come because of continuing wars, poor farming practices and burgeoning populations, which have caused soil depletion and deforestation.

Food aid can keep people alive, but helping African nations feed themselves will require large-scale foreign development aid, analysts say. Yet there are some steps African countries can take themselves.

"Ethiopia could not only feed itself, but export food," says John Mohrbacher, public relations director for the New York-based relief agency, CARE. "Such a change would require peace, diversion of much of the huge military budget into development, a few years of good rains, and a population control program."

Some CARE and U.N. relief officials are looking at ways to provide pre-emergency help to areas of developing drought. For example, selling grain in local markets in drought areas to help keep food prices affordable can sometimes forestall the need for massive relief, they say.

Meanwhile, "the international community must be prepared to continue the relief effort in the whole of Africa," says James Jonah, a West African who is the U.N.'s top relief official.

Speaking about the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Djibouti), Mr. Jonah said recently, "We have to regrettably accept that the relief efforts have become endemic in the region."

In its World Economic Outlook report, the International Monetary Fund said recently that countries that had followed its economic directions were doing better.

"In other countries affected by the drought, such as Gambia and Ghana," the report said, "access to food imports has been facilitated by the availability of foreign exchange resulting from a stable macroeconomic environment, supported by prudent economic policies and structural reforms."

War, poor roads, and resistant guerrilla and government leaders, especially in Sudan, have delayed food deliveries. U.N. and U.S. officials estimate that some 9 million people in Sudan need food aid this year, more than in any other African country. But Sudanese officials have consistently maintained there is no famine, merely a "food gap."

Sudan's government has hindered efforts to deliver food and to publicize the need. Registration of donor groups was delayed for months, and travel permits for relief officials were slow in coming.

A year ago, key U.N. and U.S. officials in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, met with Sudanese President Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, which both U.N. and U.S. aides described as contentious and yielding little result. A quieter, U.N.-led effort over the next few months resulted in Sudan approving relief shipments to drought areas in rebel-held territory in the south, and in government-controlled areas in the east -- the Red Sea Hills -- and the hard-hit western provinces of Kordofan and Darfur.

According to the U.N., 80,000 tons of food were delivered to northern drought victims between April and July, and 21,000 tons in the south. Sudan has bought at least 400,000 tons of food from abroad this year, according to the U.N.

Trevor Page, who heads the U.N. World Food Program in Sudan, has said, "We would expect the death total in the whole country would be 3,000 to 7,000." Without international relief efforts in Sudan, many more would have died, according to Mr. Jonah.

In Ethiopia, food deliveries interrupted by heavy fighting toward the end of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam have resumed. But 6 million to 7 million people still need food throughout most of the year, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In Somalia help has been limited because of instability in much of the country following the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in January.

Other countries needing emergency food assistance this year in eastern and southern Africa, according to the FAO, include: Angola, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda. In West Africa, the FAO cites Burkina Faso, Chad, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger and Sierra Leone.

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