'A hungry child knows no politics' warns

'A hungry child knows no politics' warns UN chief as West drags its heels over aid

 

The Independent (UK) 20 April 2000 By Paul Vallely in Nairobi

 

 The world has an obligation to feed children who are starving. But it also has a duty to discourage governments which pursue policies that, in part at least, are responsible for that hunger. So how do we strike a balance?

 

That was the question which, in a variety of guises, was put again and again to the UN Secretary General's special envoy, Catherine Bertini, yesterday as she ended her mission to the drought-hit Horn of Africa, where some 16 million people are estimated to be at risk of starvation.

 

During her eight-day tour of the region she visited four of the 10 countries in what the UN is now calling the "Greater Horn", and met three heads of state, various government officials and aid workers in the field. She also talked to nomads and peasant farmers whose animals have died and crops have failed and whose traditional mechanisms for coping – migrating, selling their possessions and foraging for wild fruits – are almost exhausted.

 

"The timing is critical," she said yesterday in Nairobi, presenting a preview of her concluding report to the UN's Secretary General. "This time we are not too late. The international community has a rare opportunity to prevent a famine." But her conclusions were immediately subjected to a variety of criticisms from journalists across the region who contended that aid and politics could not be separated.

 

Why should the international community give aid to destitute nomads in northern Kenya when the rest of the country had good crops, a comparatively healthy economy and a good tax base? Why should Eritrea be assisted when it had wasted money invading Ethiopia? Didn't aid just feed lawlessness among Somalia clans, Sudanese rebels and Kenyan tribesmen, by increasing their strength to fight rather than allowing the weakness which drought produced to enforce peace? Why help Ethiopia, which was spending $1m a day and "had increased its defence spending four times in the past year"?

 

Faced with this welter of criticism, Ms Bertini played a straight bat. Though some of the insecurity was man-made, drought of this magnitude would always be a potential disaster. "A hungry child knows no politics," she said. "We have to operate to keep people alive. The world has a moral duty to do that," she said. Every government has the responsibility to feed its people –and Kenya had donated $2.2m of food to be distributed there – but people in poor countries "cannot always count on the resources being available in the country."

 

Nor was it appropriate to deliberate about who was right and wrong. "It's not my mission or mandate to discuss issues of conflict between countries in the region," she said. It was the chairman of the UN Security Council's job to do that. "We have only one purpose and that is to keep people alive." Enthusiasts for various political regimes in the region, though they disagree on many things, seem to agree on one – such an approach is disingenuous.

 

But those of us who had accompanied Ms Bertini were not so sure, particularly since she seemed to have revised her  preconceptions during the tour.

 

Food is not what is needed most urgently by the millions at risk in East Africa, she announced. The wiping out of the region's livestock on a substantial scale, and the proportion of children's deaths from disease rather than malnutrition, had convinced her that clean water was first priority. That meant water tanks, bore holes and purification tablets to treat what the region's women had described as "bitter" water. "There's never been enough support among the donor community for this kind of assistance," said Ms Bertini, perhaps surprisingly since she is director of the World Food Programme. The second greatest need was for basic medicines, vaccines and oral rehydration salts. "The majority of deaths are caused by diarrhoea, measles, pneumonia – all easily preventable."

 

Even when she came to the provision of food – the international community has now pledged around half of what is needed – there was a need to be innovative. It was not just a question of providing cereals. "There is a need to increase the volume and variety of foods available," she said. Milk provided the key sustenance for many in the region. Attention, expertise and support for livestock were needed.

 

The high level of insecurity in much of the region makes it hard for people to apply their traditional coping mechanisms, such as migration, and make it difficult for aid agencies to distribute food and recruit local staff. Facilities at the port of Djibouti, and the road to it, were in need of serious upgrading.  So that the Ethiopians would find it easier to bring in arms?" a pro-Eritrean asked. Ms Bertini held her ground, and then fired off a diplomatically-worded broadside against Western governments which have, over the last decade, been as consistent in the reduction of their aid budgets as in doling out moral judgements on Third World governments. Perhaps the time had come for those governments, including Britain, which gave humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, but withheld development aid because of its war, to reconsider whether aid for projects might be allowed, even if broad aid for government programmes was still withheld, she said.

 

"Now is the time for the international community to act in a very generous way," she said. Japan, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, Kenya and the US had already made new aid promises since the mission began. "We're grateful but it's absolutely nowhere near enough." No-one who had seen what she has seen over the past 10 days could disagree.