Famine and suffering plague Africa as crisis fatigue sets in with donors


AFRICA: The prospects of survival in the face of wars, food shortages and AIDS are bleak for millions of people across broad stretches of Africa, writes Declan Walsh.

There is little New Year cheer across broad stretches of Africa, where almost 40 million people face an unprecedented food crisis in 2003. In the worst affected areas, the shortages may tip over into famine.

The crisis spans the entire continent, including long-running disasters such as war-afflicted Sudan and Angola, but has two regional epicentres. In the Horn of Africa, drought in Ethiopia and Eritrea has put 12.3 million people at risk. In southern Africa, a complex crisis is developing that threatens a further 13 million people.

The most dangerous situation is developing in Zimbabwe, a country that until recently was a surplus food producer. President Robert Mugabe's controversial land policies have caused hyperinflation and massive shortages of staples such as maize, milk, bread and sugar.

The spectre of AIDS, which in some areas affects ¼ of the population, has devastated people's ability to cope.

About half the population, or almost seven million people, will need food aid by March.

"We are very close to famine," warned Ms Gawaher Atif of the World Food Programme, which two weeks ago launched an Africa Hunger Alert to raise awareness and funds for the burgeoning crisis.

In Ethiopia, poor spring and autumn rains have caused widespread crop losses, leaving 11.3 million people exposed to hunger. In November, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sensationally warned that a looming famine could be as bad as the 1984 one that sparked Band Aid and a massive Western aid effort.

The early signs are starting to show. Families have started migrating from the worst hit areas, while pastoralists are seeing their livestock - their only source of wealth - dying in droves.

In the southeastern Ogaden region some pastoralists have given a name to the new drought: "Nowhere to go." But the crisis may not be quite as dire as Mr Zenawi predicts.

Since the highly publicised Live Aid appeals, international aid agencies have established a relatively sophisticated system of aid delivery in conjunction with the Ethiopian government that feeds six million Ethiopians in a normal year. The greater problem, according to UNICEF director, Ms Carol Bellamy, may be in attracting extra funding. An estimated €500 million of food aid will be required for 2003. "Crisis fatigue is really setting in, and each crisis gets its five minutes in the sun. This one is competing with southern Africa, with Iraq, Afghanistan and Ivory Coast," she said in a recent interview. In neighbouring Eritrea, the situation is just as severe. The crops have almost completely failed, leaving one million people - roughly one third of the population - at risk. The World Food Programme fears its supplies may run out by April; the prospect of thousands starving was a "stark reality", country representative Mr Patrick Buckley warned recently.

A severe lack of food among pastoral and semi-pastoral groups has already led to famine-like conditions, according to UNICEF. "Unfortunately I'm afraid that we are too late," said country director Mr Christian Balslev-Olsen.

In both regional dramas, politics and economics have centre-stage roles.

Politicisation of food aid remains a major problem in Zimbabwe. Supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party have been given preference in some government food stores, while several international food aid programmes were suspended during the autumn as the Mugabe government attempted to manipulate distribution. In urban areas the "green bombers" - a violent, government trained youth militia - have accused shop owners of overpricing goods, then "confiscating" precious food stocks.

In Zambia, where 3.3 million are at risk, the government has refused to accept US maize stocks, which constitutes the majority of World Food Programme aid, on the basis that it is genetically modified. The US, in turn, refuses to donate cash instead.

For Ethiopia and Eritrea, the drought comes as both countries are still recovering from a bitter, two-year border war that cost tens of thousands of lives and crippled agricultural production.

In Eritrea, over one million people were displaced in the grain producing areas of Debub and Gash Barka, parts of which remain unusable due to unexploded landmines.

Since the war ended in 2000, the government of Mr Isaias Afwerki has become increasingly repressive.

It has shut down the press, locked up political opponents without charge and continued to conscript a large proportion of young men and women into national service, making the situation even worse for many households.

In Ethiopia, foreign donors have been uneasy about donating millions of euro to a government that seems to prioritise spending on war over health and education. Ethiopia's response is also hampered by global economics - the sharp fall in coffee prices has cut incomes for many farmers, and the country is still labouring under a heavy debt burden. Last month the multinational Nestle caused a furore when it emerged that it was seeking $6 million in compensation for businesses nationalised under the Derg regime in the 1970s. The claim was subsequently withdrawn.