Floods that threaten a far corner of Africa

Mozambique: With a million homeless, forgiving debt would get it back quickest to self-sufficiency.

March 03, 2000

LAST YEAR, Mozambique had the world's fastest growing economy. It was the success story of the international program to forgive debt of the 41 poorest countries -- in its case, $3.7 billion worth. Inflation was modest. It was throwing off the culture of dependency.

Now the southeast African country of 19 million people is a basket case through no fault of its own. The rains came all January. Cyclone Eline was a knockout blow in late February. Another cyclone is menacing in the Indian Ocean.

The Limpopo River has overflowed to nearly two miles wide, cutting off the capital of Maputo from the rest of the south. Other rivers are flooding. More than one million people are displaced.

The first rescue efforts came from South African helicopter pilots, literally pulling people out of treetops. Until the 1990s, this force trained to fight Mozambique and supported rebellion there. Now the United States is diverting Europe-based Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs from a disaster relief training exercise in Cameroon in West Africa.

Rescuing stranded people, sheltering and feeding them, is the initial challenge. Then public health. After that, it will be rebuilding agriculture and infrastructure to resume the growth.

A powerful case is made for forgiving the remainder of $8.3 billion international debt. Mozambique was on its way to paying for a higher living standard out of its own growth, and should be helped back there as soon as possible.

Most of the rivers overflowing in Mozambique are international, rising in other countries. African nations are responding well in trying to cooperate on regional emergencies.

The more effective aid that can be sent and the more debt that can be postponed or forgiven, the quicker one country will throw off the culture of dependency and become an aid-giver.

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