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Famine Relief A Mistake? : Sober Words About A Grim Comedy

March 08, 1985|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

Jonathan Falla spent years working in Third World relief camps, but back home in England hardly any fellow Westerners believed his tales of how Western aid often makes disasters worse.

So Falla, hoping to make the Western World understand how its charitable intentions often pave the road to a living hell for those in need, wrote "Topokana Martyrs' Day." Falla's grim comedy, a satirical look at a relief camp and a failed revolution, is now at the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, through March 24.

"In talking to people about my play, I find it is often difficult to get them to understand that this is not a bizarre fantasy-fiction play," Falla said during a brief visit to Los Angeles. The play is based on detailed diaries Falla said he kept on "relief work, one of the most bizarre activities on earth."

Much of the help extended by the Western World to victims of disasters in the Third World worsens their travails, Falla said, by disrupting cultures attuned to the local environment and making societies that survived for centuries dependent on handouts.

Falla said a good example of this occurred when he directed a relief camp, run by a private nonprofit relief organization he declined to publicly identify, in Uganda a few years back. Falla, a pseudonym, said 23,000 people in drought-ravaged Karamoja came to depend on him for food and medical care.

One day an airplane arrived, weighed down with countless metal tins of sardines, Falla recalled.

The landlocked Karamojong, Falla noted, have never seen the sea. Neither the powerful aroma or oily feel of sardines appealed to the Karamojong so the tins sit unopened to this day, Falla said.

And then there was the largess of the Dutch, who shipped tons of Edam. Europeans might think Edam a delicacy, but the Karamojong detested the cheese, which soon rotted and had to be buried.

To Falla, the most outrageous example of help that hurts was an Italian manufacturer's gift of pairs of fancy Italian shoes with spiked heels. The shoes were as out of style in the grasslands of Uganda as they had become in the trendy haute couture shops of Rome. But, Falla said, the manufacturer's generosity was rewarded with a tax deduction.

"Most of the stuff that is shipped is wholly inappropriate," Falla said. He believes that many gifts to help Third World people are motivated by emotional appeals on television and by the lure of tax write-offs. "I would stop all tax deductions" for relief, he said, repeating the point when asked if that was hyperbole.

In most cases of famine--Ethiopia and the Sudan being major exceptions--food is available "in the region and the problem is not to bring food in, which disrupts the local economy and destroys incentives for farmers to work, but to transport food." He said hiring local truckers, supplemented if necessary by imported trucks, can both get food to where it is needed and stimulate the local economy.

"But shipping large quantities of food often does more for the donor country than for the country that gets the food," he said. "If you doubt this, imagine what it would do to the American economy if the Russians were to feed all Americans, free, for one year. . . . "

At the end of a recent performance Falla walked onto the stage to discuss with the audience the dark humor he found in the horror of famine. Bill Bushnell, artistic producing director at LAAT, said the play has generated about 15 letters from patrons upset by the notion of humor in hunger or by a powerful interracial sex scene.

Falla is part of a small group of relief experts who question the notion of giving away food. Often, he said, people arriving in relief camps have money. "But there are all sorts of irrelevant Western criteria applied, like rules that you can't sell the food, you have to give it away . . . and so the food destroys the local economy and farmers stop working because how are they going to sell their food when people can get it for free? . . . "

Such food giveaways, he said, are "not really relief at all, but the creation of an endless permanent dependency" that destroys cultures and damages human lives.

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