Famine, Again

Famine, Again

Washington Post
Sunday, January 19, 2003; Page B06

REP. FRANK R. WOLF (R-Va.) just got back from Ethiopia and showed around his pictures from the field -- the blank eyes, the bloated bellies balancing on two sticks -- and people thought he was in a time warp. "Yes, this again" he's been telling his colleagues. Just as in 1984, the ribs are starting to show and the cupboards are on their last cup of grain, not just in Ethiopia but in much of southern Africa. But this is not merely a replay of the last famine. This time there is a cooperative government in Ethiopia, and everywhere else the aid workers have arrived in time. What is still needed is critical but manageable: Western governments and other donors must ensure that over the next few months the food pipeline stays open and runs smoothly.

The term "famine in Africa" may seem exotic and remote, especially with war and domestic terrorism so imminent. But zoom in on the elemental: Famine is about rain at the wrong time and seeds that won't sprout and parents with children who need nourishment. In Ethiopia, Mr. Wolf traveled as far from the capital as Richmond is from Washington. There he found a village of a few hundred where even the kids were too weak to move. One man had been digging a well for two days in the hot sun; he'd had his last drink -- a cup of putrid brown water -- the day before. One mother opened her storage bin mostly for effect. It was empty. "My kids are kind of mad at me," she explained. "They don't understand why I can't help them."

Some of this can be blamed on bad luck; African weather patterns have been especially erratic this planting season. Some of it is venality; in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe is purposely starving his political enemies. Zambia still senselessly resists donations of genetically modified corn. Compounding it all is the astounding AIDS infection rate, which is killing off the farming generation and has made people less able to operate in survival mode. But it's almost better not to dwell on the causes. The important thing is that in the next few months before the new harvest, about 30 million people are in danger of starvation.

In contrast to 1984, the international aid community is prepared. The Bush administration just authorized the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to pledge a large shipment of food to Ethiopia, and supplies have been reaching southern Africa for the last few months. But resources are spread thin. There are eight African countries at risk, plus Afghanistan and North Korea. At the very least, Congress needs to ensure that the $325 million budgeted for 2003 is approved quickly. Aid groups have pushed for an additional $600 million, a request Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle included in his Africa Famine Relief Act. But some aid workers in the field are nervous about depending on that legislation; it is subject to debate, and there's no time to debate.

Another option is to draw on the Emerson Trust, an emergency food reserve administered by the Department of Agriculture. Given the time crunch, this seems like the best option. So far the only resistance comes from domestic food producers worried about rising food prices -- an understandable but secondary concern. Andrew Natsios, head of USAID, traveled in Ethiopia last week; a shipment of grain, he said, takes eight weeks to get from the port of Baltimore to Ethiopia. "The biggest enemy of all famine relief is time," he said. "People don't die on our schedule."

2003 The Washington Post Company