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Relief Agencies Renew Appeals for Help as New Famine Menaces Africa

December 06, 1987|ROBERT BARR | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Relief agencies are gearing up to fight another African famine, hoping their hard-won experience will contain the crisis without harrowing pictures of starving children, without hungry people leaving their land, without people dying.

"While we are certain that people will die, we do not anticipate the great extent of last time," said Beth Griffin of Catholic Relief Services.

Neither can the relief organizations count on the great outpouring of cash that eased the famine of 1984 and 1985. This time, there is no "Live Aid" rock concert and no "We Are the World" record to raise funds.

"I'd hate to think you have to have pictures of dead kids to elicit that reaction--because that's what we'll have in a few months," said Willet Weeks, Africa regional director for Save the Children Federation Inc.

"I cannot conceive that the American public which did so much in 1984 and 1985 would now let those children die."

Need Exceeds Pledges

The World Food Program reported last month that Ethiopia, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola, Somalia and the Sudan need 2.3 million tons of food this year, about twice as much as has been pledged by donor countries.

The program, a United Nations agency, also reported serious problems in Botswana, Chad, Niger, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

More than 5 million people are considered at risk in Ethiopia, at least 2 million in Mozambique. In both countries, relief and development projects have become targets for rebels.

"It's the timeliness of the response that will make a difference. If it takes months to get going, it may be too late," said Mohulatsi Mokeyane, director of the African program for the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia.

Although the numbers at risk in Ethiopia approach the 6 million affected by the earlier famine, the agencies are more confident of their ability to respond.

"One of the things that is different this time around is that not only are the organizations targeted in specific regions, but they have staff in place which is monitoring crop production, so we knew a lot sooner that the rains weren't falling and the crops weren't growing," said George Wirt, spokesman for CARE.

"This time around, you won't be seeing people losing time to gearing up. What you'll see now is that the pipeline will open up, and instead of 20,000 tons of food going through, you'll get 30,000 to 40,000."

A crucial part of the strategy now is to keep hungry people close to their land, working on roads, wells and other food-for-work projects and being ready to plant next year's crop. Relief agencies do not want starving people congregating in feeding centers.

In 1985, "people left their farms because they had literally nothing to eat," said Wirt. "The effort this time is to prevent the migration and the growth of camps, because experience showed that was where most of the misery happened."

Acquiring the necessary food may be less of a problem than distribution, as it was two years ago. In October, a truck convoy organized by Catholic Relief Services and the United Nations was ambushed by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front, which has waged a secessionist guerrilla war for 25 years. Rebellion is also a problem in the province of Tigray.

"There is plenty of food. Food is not a problem," said Bart Kull, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "The problem is adequate trucks, and a political resolve on the part of the Ethiopian government and the EPLF to let these resources flow."

AID has committed 114,000 tons of food to Ethiopia, in addition to an earlier pledge of 20,000 tons, Kull said. AID is also investing $1.2 million in two Twin Otter aircraft and $1.1 million in truck trailers and spare parts to help move the food into the countryside.

In Mozambique, where the government says it needs 450,000 tons of emergency food, AID has pledged 150,000 tons.

Deliberate Attacks

Rudy von Bernuth, program director for CARE, said the guerrillas of the Mozambique National Resistance deliberately attack development projects.

"All we can do is keep people from starving this year, and hope other forces can straighten out the situation," von Bernuth said.

Refugees from war in Mozambique have compounded problems for countries such as Malawi, normally a surplus food producer but a drought victim this year, Weeks said.

Bob Seipel, president of World Vision Inc., said his agency spent $71 million in Ethiopia in 1985, but budgeted $4.2 million this year.

"That gives you some idea what happens when the news disappears," said Seipel, who started an $8-million appeal earlier this month.

Paul Brink of the American Friends Service Committee said donations were up about 10% this year, although funds specifically contributed for Africa were down by one-third.

Save the Children spent $12 million in Ethiopia this year, the same as last year, though its overall budget of $75 million was down nearly $10 million, Weeks said.

Church World Service reports that individual contributions are up 9% in 1987. After spending $500,000 for trucks this year, it still has somewhat less than $1 million left from the Ethiopia appeals of 1985.

"A lot of people don't want to hear any more about people starving in Africa. It is a problem," said Cecil Cole, information officer for World Relief, an agency of the National Assn. of Evangelicals in Wheaton, Ill.

World Relief works primarily in West Africa, in Mali, Burkina Faso and Senega, where evangelical churches are well-established.

"We are getting reports now from our people, particularly in Burkina Faso and Mali, that in some areas they have had severe rain shortages and 50% to 80% to 100% crop failures," Cole said.

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