Emergencies crowd out long-term aid

February 18, 2006|By SCOTT CALVERT | SCOTT CALVERT,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

BIL BIL, Kenya -- Halima Hussein has to walk two miles to fetch water for her family, and for that she is grateful. Until 2002 the women of this village walked eight miles to the murky, crocodile-infested Tana River, then walked eight miles back home with donkeys carrying the water jugs.

"From the heart I am very happy," Hussein said, standing in 105-degree heat at an earthen dam, where a hand pump pulls cold water through a gravel purifier.

The four-year-old dam is a manmade oasis, now of critical importance because of a drought scorching much of East Africa. A construction project overseen by Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the dam was built thanks to $48,000 provided by a U.S. aid program aimed at helping people move toward self-sufficiency.

But now it is the money that is drying up, and CRS has had to shelve plans for additional dams to trap Kenya's scarce rainfall. Around the world, the United States is reducing grants for long-term development projects, the better to devote money to global emergencies, such as the Darfur refugee crisis in Sudan.

Most of the abandoned projects are relatively inexpensive and technologically simple, yet could improve thousands of lives.

There were to be new sources of safe drinking water, continued village-wide immunizations against disease, and new efforts to plant drought-tolerant crops and fruit trees. Intense competition for the best land often forces people to live miles from water sources.

Aid groups say the shift away from relatively small, long-term projects is short-sighted and guarantees more serious emergencies in the future.

Because of drought, 3.5 million Kenyans, 10 percent of the population, already need food handouts to survive, a crisis that might be less pressing if a more extensive network of small dams were built.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the government's lead agency for foreign aid, plans to eliminate 17 countries from the program for long-term projects such as the Bil Bil dam. Catholic Relief officials say they believe Kenya will be among the countries made ineligible for future grants.

A USAID official in Washington says that the decisions about which countries to cut from the program are not final and that focusing aid on the "most food-insecure" countries does not signal an overall drop in funding.

After falling to $330 million in 2005 from $445 million in 2003, development aid is up so far in the year that began Oct. 1, according to Jonathan Dworken, acting director of the agency's Food for Peace program, which administers the development grants.

But the head of a relief group coalition is skeptical.

"That doesn't necessarily mean by the end of the year they're going to do more than last year," said Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Coalition for Food Aid, "and the program had already been cut."

In Kenya, AID rejected Catholic Relief's request for $21 million last year to launch new programs over the next five years and to keep others running. In the country's eastern Tana River District, the programs that might have to close include schemes for farmers to plant hardy fruit trees; new dams, wells and latrines; and medical aid for mothers and children.

"It's ironic - in this time of drought, this is the very type of development aid that will stop," said Ken MacLean, Catholic Relief's representative in Kenya, who is laying off a third of his staff in Nairobi, the capital. "There will be droughts and other emergencies in the future. We're trying to prepare poor communities as much as possible for when that happens."

The chief of AID's Kenya mission, Stephen Haykin, spoke favorably about Catholic Relief's programs.

"It's not a question of performance," he said, "but a question of tough choices we in the U.S. government have to make in a time of lots of emergencies around the world."

The United States has long provided half or more of the world's food aid, largely through the Food for Peace program. Commodities such as corn and wheat go directly to hungry people or, in the case of development projects such as the Bil Bil dam, American-grown food is sold overseas to generate cash that in turn funds projects.

The Food for Peace budget has hovered around $1.7 billion the past two years. The development portion, however, has been shrinking. The Coalition for Food Aid sent House Speaker Dennis Hastert a letter this month asking for $500 million in development funds next year.

The steady reduction has come as critics, including the European Union, assail the practice of selling food in recipient countries, arguing that it distorts local markets.

CARE, among the world's largest relief groups, has decided to stop "monetizing" crops and will seek only cash grants. But Catholic Relief maintains the system does more good than harm.

Will Lynch, a food adviser at CRS' Baltimore headquarters, says AID's planned reduction in aid will create significant hardships.

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