Another African tragedy

May 24, 2002

FEW AFRICAN nations can escape occasional droughts. But six countries from Malawi to Zimbabwe have been hit by something far more insidious - killer floods that first wiped out crops, followed by a merciless aridity that has baked the soil hard as rock.

Some 5 million people are threatened with starvation.

Nature's vagaries are only a partial reason for this unfolding disaster. Zimbabwe, long regarded as the region's bread basket, is a case in point.

Drought, combined with President Robert Mugabe's disastrous expulsion of white farmers, has produced a man-made calamity in which the area planted with corn fell by 54 percent in a single year. Add to that the fallout from the controversy over his fixed re-election. The result: Angry donor countries froze some $4 billion in development aid.

Mr. Mugabe's erratic despotism is likely to make any meaningful bilateral aid efforts by foreign governments extremely difficult in Zimbabwe.

That only underscores the pivotal role of such private organizations as Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service, the relief arm of 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations.

Over past decades, both organizations have developed their own delivery infrastructures in the famine-stricken region, relying on local congregations and governmental offices. That network, created in response to the AIDS pandemic, now offers a speedy and effective means of dealing with famine.

Even though neighboring Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique are among the famine victims, South Africa so far has not been touched by the drought. This is fortunate, because South Africa is a huge granary. From there, surplus food can be easily trucked as far north as Zambia.

When he last talked about development aid, President Bush linked U.S. overseas assistance to good governing, and there is nothing wrong with that demand.

Whether it directs its words to the governments in Zimbabwe, Malawi or Zambia, Washington should advocate sane long-term agricultural policies, responsiveness to the public opinion and transparency to prevent fraud.

But there is a difference between long-term development aid and humanitarian emergency relief. When innocent people are perishing of hunger, their governments' shortcomings should not be used as a pretext to deny assistance.

After a number of private aid organizations conferred recently in Washington, they left the meeting with the impression that the Bush administration is "intent on engaging quickly and robustly," as one participant put it.

That, indeed, should be the U.S. government posture in famine-stricken Africa.

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