November, 1991

SECTION: Vol. 38 ; No. 11 ; Pg. 124; ISSN: 0032-1478

LENGTH: 4727 words

HEADLINE: An entirely man-made disaster; famine in Africa

BYLINE: Boyles, Denis

Every six months, we hear about drought, famine and death in Africa. The press covers the story for three weeks, charities launch relief missions and angels of mercy take wing. Yet absolutely nothing changes.

Here's why the tragedy recurs and how it can be stopped.

Six years ago, I was riding in a cargo plane 30,000 feet above the conflict in Angola. My companion was a bleary, hung-over Swedish pilot who was hitching a ride back to Europe. Below us, roads cut into fertile red soil and outlined fields of rich green. From five miles up, there were- no signs of bombed bridges and burned-out schools, part of the mayhem and massacres that had plunged a nation into poverty and famine and had, in the span of a decade, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. As Angola disappeared into the lush reaches of Zaire, the pilot turned to me and imparted a bit of drunken wisdom: "The higher you get, the better it all looks."

From a distance, the continent does look promising: rich resources, fertile land great potent ground level, though, the view is everywhere blocked by failure. In most of Africa, there is no commerce, no education, no decent government, no jobs, no future, no money and no hope. But most of all, there's no food. Africa, once a major food producer, is now known primarily for one thing: famine.

Hideous tales of politics, rhetoric and death in Africa are so familiar to us that we have come to resent their constant presence. Once, if I had told you there was a famine in Africa, your likely reply would have been "What can be done to help?" Now, with some justification, it would be "What, again?"

But the current plague of hunger has concrete causes and human culprits, which is why Africa Watch calls it "an entirely man-made disaster." That is where we'll find whatever faint opportunity may still exist buried amid the hopelessness that is Africa.


In 1986, a flamboyant UN relief worker, Staffan de Mistura, told a journalist that "to die of hunger, it takes you three months. So we have three months to work with." That's the good news. The bad news is that three months-enough time, after all, for a man to travel by foot from Ethiopia to a good restaurant in Paris-is not enough time to deliver groceries to the starving people of Africa. The reasons for our inability to do so are depressingly simple.

First, let's dispense with the usual suspect: drought. There's plenty of rain in Liberia, where most citizens are caught in cross fire between their own countrymen and where starvation is rampant. The skies open daily during rainy season in Mozambique and Angola, where warring factions dismember civilians and where nobody eats but the soldiers. This year, there are famines in seven African countries-Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sudan, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique and Angola-all running simultaneously, like horror movies in a Cineplex of misery. In a dozen other nations, famine threatens with only marginally less intensity. And although it would be easier to do so, we can't blame the weather. So where do African famines come from?

Start here: civil wars.

Imagine the scene: You're in a relief convoy-five trucks and a Land Rover full of food donated by faraway Danes and Americans, bound for a dusty camp swollen with frightened, dying refugees just around that bend where the three MiG-21s have popped over the horizon. There are many unbelievable things in this world, but a government ordering the strafing and bombing of a relief column carrying food to its own people? it's right up there in the believe-it-or-not follies.

Believe it. Ethiopian and Sudanese government fliers have routinely slaughtered columns and camps of refugee civilians. The rebels in those countries, meanwhile, have routinely destroyed food shipments, lest they fall into the hands of the besieged government forces that have typically controlled the airstrips. In Africa, food and medicine are routinely used as weapons in a struggle that invariably has nothing to do with the people who are dying of hunger, people for whom politics is a bowl of rice. For the most part, civil wars in Africa are fought to shift power from one corrupt elite to another. The media call them civil wars because it's too complicated to call them something more clarifying, such as "one bunch of well-armed yahoos trying to hold on to power while another bunch of well-armed yahoos tries to take it away." In countries such as the Sudan or Ethiopia, the purpose of government certainly isn't to ensure domestic tranquility. Its purpose is to protect the governor-who, along with his cronies, grows fat at the expense of his countrymen-from those who want his job and the power and fatness that go along with it.

The smoke from these nonstop conflicts chokes the survivors, as well, for African wars have rendered a generation or two illiterate and impoverished and have demolished families, tribes, entire societies. Worst of all, these violent disruptions create their own replication, as one or another deposed strong man, party or tribe lingers in a society, carrying out guerrilla actions while awaiting the chance to exact revenge and seize power.

Endlessly recurring conflicts are only one cause of Africa's suffering. There's also social engineering, the forced relocation of villagers to suit the government's needs. Although the concept seems abstract, the victims are not.

The conflict in Ethiopia has made pawns out of the millions of tribespeople who lived in Eritrea, Tigre, Ogaden and all the other provinces of what was once a patchwork of tribal nations assembled in a hurry in the 1880s while Britain, the regional power most concerned, was otherwise distracted in Egypt and the Sudan. As that patchwork unraveled, Ethiopia's former president Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power and concocted various programs designed to pacify the country, primary among them, something he liked to call "villagization."

Mengistu's program, a model of the tremendous overbite that results when political correctness is given real teeth, ranks with Stalin's forced collectivization of Ukrainian farms as an example of what a dictator with a little ambition can do if he really wants to destroy his own nation. By the time Mengistu fled Ethiopia earlier this year, his scheme had wiped out at least 35,000 traditional villages, thus eliminating a food-growing and -trading system that had helped Ethiopians weather droughts and plagues for centuries. He replaced these villages with 15,000 new and presumably improved villages-but they were in areas that had never been able to provide enough food to sustain the people who lived there even before villagization. Mengistu coupled this disastrous move with an even more devastating agricultural policy that taxed farmers' income at more than 80 percent, allowed soldiers to confiscate livestock and mandated the destruction of crops and grain stores. Famine was the only harvest.

By the ruler's reckoning, his program was a success; a restive population was rendered too weak to fight, and his power was, for a time, made secure. His reign of hunger lasted nearly a decade and a half It was not a secret. Yet no one lifted a hand to stop it.

Even though Mengistu has been in exile since his ouster last May, he left behind a volatile complex of regional and tribal conflicts. The current truce is likely to be a transient thing. Even now, hundreds of thousands of sick, wounded or starving demobilized soldiers, the victims of peace, are wandering the countryside, wishing they still had homes to return to. When the next famine begins, you'll think it was only yesterday that the dying ended. And you'll be right.

Imagine your state motor-vehicle department regulating food growers and you have an idea of how bureaucracy can kill. In the case of African famine, the bureaucracy most concerned is the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. It is the largest of the UN's autonomous organizations, and since its founding in 1945, it has spent nine billion dollars trying to end the world's hunger. Through its World Food Program, it also seeks to meet sudden food emergencies. Unfortunately, it doesn't work.

For the past decade and a half or so, the F.A.O.'s director-general, a Lebanese named Eduoard Saouma, has been irritating the large donor nations by running his bureaucracy with the same attention to personal power that marked the regime of, say, Mengistu in Ethiopia. When Saouma exits his limousine and enters the EA.0. offices, his staffers must stand. He likes to be called Your Excellency and he travels regally, expecting fully to be treated as a head of state, the King of Groceries. Saouma's salary for his six-year term: at least $ 1,200,000, including expenses. He controls a multimillion-dollar fund, for which accounting is murky, at best. His excess of hubris so mightily offended the Western delegates that the Canadians mounted an effort to oust him when he stood for re-election to a third six-year term in 1987. According to diplomatic sources, Saouma was able to dodge that bullet through a cleverly planned effort to dole out favors-courtesy of the fund-to disaffected voter nations.

In any case, the real criticisms of Saouma center on how his massive ego clogs the relief pipelines and prompts many donors to bypass the RA.0. The fiasco that led to his attempted ouster occurred at the height of the Ethiopian famine of 1984, when 5,000,000 people were on the verge of starvation. Hunger was killing them off at the rate of about 2300 a day, and the Ethiopian government made an emergency appeal for aid. That request ran afoul of a long-simmering battle between Saouma and his colleague James Ingram, director of the World Food Program; their squabbles have crippled the UN's relief apparatus. A source in the EA.0. contends that Ingram inexplicably stalled for several days before granting a transfer of 30,000 tons of supplies, but then Saouma refused to sign off on the shipment. He was annoyed, apparently, because an Ethiopian official had gone to his rival Ingram first. The battle raged for days and days as the death toll mounted. Finally, when Saouma's whims had been entertained and the Ethiopian official had been recalled by his government, the food was released. According to one 20-year veteran of the F.A.O., the price of his pique was more than 45,000 Ethiopian lives.

The Eduoard Saoumas of the world occupy all levels of the relief bureaucracy. Entire governments tailor policies to make it more difficult and more expensive to feed their starving citizens than it would be to, say, sell the government arms. just as the death camps can be considered a political expedient, so can food aid. Last year, the al-Bashir government in the Sudan sold off all its emergency food reserves to buy arms and oil, and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army continues to seize relief shipments and sell the food or use it to feed soldiers. You can't get very far into this discussion without running into the perennial figure in African affairs: racism. It cuts two ways.

First is the obvious one. Imagine that what's going on in, say, the Sudan were going on in Norway. Or the Soviet Union. The outcry would be universal and the Western world would circle its grain wagons to help. Obviously, not all lives on this planet have equal worth, and those in Africa seem cheap, indeed.

But racism cuts another way as well: Call it affirmative action for despots. Common sense tells you that for every FREE SOUTH AFRICA-END APARTHEID bumper sticker, there ought to be another reading FEED ETHIOPIA-DOWN WITH MENGISTU. But the truth is that while any bozo can tell an evil white South African from a virtuous black one, trying to figure out who the good and bad black guys are in Africa is a tricky business. For 30 years, a numbing succession of little Hitlers have marched in and out of power there while the rest of the world did nothing. The result? Far, far more dead people under post-colonial tyrants than during all the African colonial wars put together. That they have been allowed to remain in power for so long is sorry evidence of a repugnant form of racial bias. After six decades of colonialism and three of postcolonial terror, Africans are still dying for a fair shot at rational self-government.

Around the comer from racism is its neighbor in the social sciences: economics. In the context of Africa, economics is a subject unnecessarily complicated by curves, graphs and numbers. There is one simple number to know: 1.7 percent. That's the share of the world's trade that belongs to that vast continent, and a substantial amount of that share belongs to South Africa. Money talks. Africans walk.

The situation in Africa is exacerbated by the grasping policies of the hardest-hit countries. A common gambit is to exchange relief supplies for hard currency, which in turn is spent on weapons or stashed away in the leader's foreign bank account. Often, the food sent to feed people is hoarded by the wealthy and powerful and offered at a price so high the hungry cannot afford to buy it.

The rags-to-riches exploits of African politicians color the economic picture in Africa simply because we in the West like to help those who help themselves. Mobutu, Mugabe, Moi, Kaunda may all be charlatans when it comes to fair government, but they're the real thing-when it comes to stable trading partners.

When famines are announced, weeks, months may pass while donor countries, P.V.s (private voluntary organizations) and N.G.O.s (nongovernmental organizations) solicit donations and food. Then, suddenly, tremendous amounts of relief supplies are mustered, clogging the seaports and flooding the capitals. If all the hungry people in Africa lived in the capital cities, everybody would eat.

But they don't. So the biggest practical problem fighting famine is the prosaic logistical one: How do you get food from where it is to where it isn't?

There's something about the Nile that loves a barge, and it's this: From Khartourn south to Equatoria and the headwaters of the Nile, there are two ways of moving goods and people. One is by air, a costly proposition and, for most Sudanese, a highly unlikely one. The other is by barge-large, wide, flat-bottomed jobs that glide across the huge southern swamp like an angel from heaven's larder.

So if you're a relief worker in Khartoum, contemplating the impossibility of getting food to the south, and you realize there are no roads, no bridges, no trucks and if there were, the military would have permanent dibs on them), sooner or later, the idea will occur to you: Let's load up a barge and float relief up the river.

That's just what they tried to do last year in the village of Bor, where Red Cross staffers supervised workers laboring to assemble a brand-new barge donated by Norwegians, flown in pieces to Nairobi and hauled across the border into the Sudan to run relief.

Alas, nobody asked the Sudanese government if it would grant permission for the new, bigger boat-which, of course, it wouldn't. When observers, including a chap from The Washington Post, went to see what the problem was, they found the barge slowly rusting away, aground on the shoals of bureaucracy and paranoia.

The stalled barge tells you all you need to know about African transport. Any vehicle that can travel efficiently from one place to another comes under immediate suspicion of harboring weapons or soldiers, and thus becomes a military target. Moreover, much of the continent is just plain impassable. Throughout Africa, a valuable heritage of colonial infrastructure has been wasted. In Zaire, there were 90,000 miles of passable road when it declared independence in 1960. Twenty-five years later, there were fewer than 6000 left.

There is an especially despicable group of middle-range government officials, army officers and foreign-aid functionaries who grow fat off the world's efforts to feed the starving. The World Bank calls them the Vampire Elite, and they are recognizable from the Mercedeses they park in front of their mansions in the capital cities of the most godforsaken countries on earth.

A Dutch relief worker in Kenya told me that if assistance is funneled through the typical African government, as much as 80 percent of it will be unaccounted for. So much aid goes into so many government pockets that many nations avoid the official channels. This year's $ 23,000,000 in U.S. aid to Zaire, for example, will go only to nongovernmental organizations, because corruption in official agencies has become so rife.

If the Vampire Elite are the parasites, then private charities are the fattened beasts upon which they feed.

It is, perhaps, only to be expected that bureaucracies built to respond to famine often feed on it. These days, it's one of Africa's few growth industries: In 1988, there were nearly 100,000 relief and development workers in Africa. Private organizations chum huge amounts of cash pushing frequent famine program-or, as one analyst told me, "No famine, no money"-then squander their resources on schemes that duplicate those of their competitors, resulting in phenomenal waste. Intoxicated with the fever of urgency, they are often highly adept at responding to emergencies but unable to deal with the conditions-especially the political ones-that create famine. To do so effectively would only alienate the very governments whose acquiescence is required for relief programs to proceed. It is a malignant alliance when those who fight famine are dependent for their existence upon those who cause it.

Also, there is often virtually no formal integration between the very groups that should be working together: the nongovernmental and private voluntary relief efforts. During the last big famine in the Sudan, in 1985 and 1986, there were more than 90 nongovernmental organizations at work in Khartoum, each providing field jobs for a growing mob of disaster specialists, stimulating a false economy and generating enormous profits for truckers, contractors and other famine entrepreneurs.

The result is a highly inefficient relief industry-something that people, asked again and again to give, eventually notice. The by-product is a sense of futility that serves no one.

Which would you rather read about?

A. Economic cycles

B. Government deficits

C. Savings-and-loan scandals

D. Famine

E. None of the above

According to members of the media, E is the answer we all would give, because they believe that these subjects are impossible for normal people to understand.

Consequently, famine is covered in shorthand-highly charged paragraphs read to the camera by a journalist clad in khaki. The piece will usually start with an emblematic shot of, say, Abdul, who has brought his family down from the mountains, his children starving, his wife sick, his cow dead, as if the only way we comprehend the horror of famine is by imagining ourselves in Abdul's place.

That's ridiculous, of course, because it's impossible. It also assumes that it is only the horror of famine that we need to understand. And that's where the trouble starts. Famine is invariably covered as a crisis that begs for a solution, that can be ameliorated with big infusions of food and money. As soon as the food arrives, as soon as the war ends, as soon as the rain falls, the famine ends-or, to be exact, the media's interest in it ends. But famine is only the most dramatic symptom of a much larger process that involves economics, racism, history, bureaucrats-all the components of a real-world problem.

What do those hungry children think is happening when some guy shoves a million-dollar video camera into their faces? During one recent CNN segment, a woman asked the camera why they had been sent video crews but no food. It is in the camps that we see the results of an event that, had there been a reporter handy, would have been the real news.

That brings us to famine fatigue. If famine is a man-made disaster, famine fatigue is a media-made one. Unsure of how to report on an issue as complex as famine, the media hope that startling images and startling numbers will do their jobs for them. Consequently, we are no longer shocked at the look on a baby's face moments before it dies of hunger, and pictures of the endless swarm of refugees shuffling around in the desert fail to touch us.

But if the faces are hideous, so are the numbers. The number of those threatened by famine," to use the vague phraseology of the UN, changes almost daily in an apparent struggle to find an arbitrary figure that will grab the public imagination.

Until last summer, the United Nations said 27,000,000 people in Africa were at risk of starving this year. Then, in June, the UN upped the ante to a round 30,000,000. For most of us, those are not real numbers. Fortunately, 30,000,000 isn't a real number to the UN, either. Thirty million people did not starve in Africa this year. The number who actually died of famine in Africa may be as low as a mere 1,000,000 or so. The UN must assume that 1,000,000 deaths-a mere 1,000,000-are just not enough to make us notice. Like famine relief agencies, the UN-and, for that matter, the press-has a need to take a big famine and make it bigger, as big as it can possibly be. That's marketing. That's showbiz.

The beauty part is, you can make the famine as big as you want. The bad part is, it's impossible to tell how big it really is. The really bad part is, the media never question the bloated figures offered by UN bureaucracies. Consequently, it's hard for us to know what to do to fight the present famine and prevent the occurrence of the next one.

So there's famine again in Africa.

What can be done to help?

On some cold and rational level, doing nothing may make the most sense. As we've learned in this country, setting up a massive, permanent welfare structure perpetuates poverty. But after all the pictures on TV and all the pleading mail, most of us feel we must do something.

Our first instinct-sending huge infusions of food-may be the wrong thing. Large-scale relief can destroy a local agricultural economy. Famines get meanest just before harvest, so just about the time all the hard-working farmers in, say, Somalia get ready to take their paltry crops in-presto!-the world community dumps tons and tons of free food, ruining the market, driving farmers from the land and into the cities for jobs, and making next season's famine worse.

Relief-that is, the immediate, airlift-style remedies necessary for treating famine-is distinct from development, which focuses on the long-term solutions that seek to prevent famine in the first place. Development programs clearly hold out the most promise, but what sort work best?

* Agricultural programs have the best chance of succeeding. Those areas in Africa subject to repeated famine have to recapture their agrarian base. Organizations bent on creating T-shirt factories in Ethiopia are wasting their time and your money. Africa's future is in its soil.

Development programs must be seen by recipients as an extension of an already existing system. The entire history of Western development in Africa is crowded with grand, innovative projects that should have worked but, in fact, went bust as soon as the Westerners imported to operate the programs left.

If a charity can't show that it is using at least 90 percent of the money it raises on direct applications, it's a lousy candidate for support. CARE and Catholic Relief Services both emphasize development programs and claim to spend only about a dime of every dollar running their offices or raising more money. But even large, well-established charities often hide in individual project budgets more administrative costs-for salaries, PR and the rest. Oxfam U.K. routinely raised money for food, then secretly spent it on political projects such as lobbying for the Sandinistas. Still, larger organizations can target funds better, attempt to avoid duplication, and sometimes side-step the more obvious traps, such as having food turn up in the markets.

Let's be square here-famine is as big as politics. Consequently, the real solutions that must be imposed to stop famine in Africa are big solutions, some of them somewhat abstract, and all of them the kind you write to your Congressman about, since only governments can implement strategies-such as the following, for example-that are designed to assign responsibility and treat famine other than symptomatically.

On the other hand, pressing for solutions such as those offered here can make you feel better in the long run, since their object is not just to feed the hungry but to make famine unlikely in the first place.

Halt all arms sales to all African nations. Africa is already one of the best-armed continents on earth. Nations that have spent nothing on health and education spend billions on defense. Invariably, at some point, governments turn these weapons on their own people.

Punish the guilty. African despots are in a league of their own, not only killing and torturing their people on a huge scale but, as in the cases of the Central African Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Uganda's Idi Amin, allegedly eating them as well. This can occur only when it is understood that the world will never punish an African dictator. If the globe is our community, then the guy down the street who keeps whacking his wife around and killing his kids has to be stopped. Even if he's not like us. Even if he's in Africa.

Make relief efforts surgical. Often, relief agencies set up business in a Third World capital the same way Citibank does, with long leases and lots of capital equipment, thus institutionalizing the apparatus of famine. But the UN's Staffan de Mistura once described to me his idea of a small, highly mobile strike force that could be summoned to an emergency area and have operations set up in a day or two-cargo planes coming and going, stringent monitoring of supplies, trucks flown in and loaded, fuel and road-building equipment brought in from outside, sort of like a small-scale Operation Desert Storm.

Redraw the map to reflect natural political divisions. Ethiopia, for instance, makes much more sense as a loose federation of tribal-based trading partners than as an empire. Africa is a cartographic convenience, a continent filled with people who have little to do with one another. Tribal units are the transcendent fact of political life. Imagine Peru and China and Fiji sharing the same land mass, and you have an accurate idea of African diversity. Now imagine them sharing the same state, and you have an accurate idea of modern African politics.

Put strings on governmental aid. Insist on economic, legal and political reform. If this can't be secured, then whenever possible, channel assistance to indigenous nongovernmental organizations. Monitor aid to avoid corruption and theft. But lift existing requirements that U.S. aid money be used to buy American products and services, since these requirements strangle development.

Slowly, the cycle of change that has swept through Europe seems to be making its way to Africa. The social utopians, having starved millions, arc on the way out, giving way to market economists and social democrats. A few beleaguered tyrants are opting for open elections and the civil-war cycles may be slowing their pace. The respite in the usual run of African conflicts is giving farmers a season to plant, and perhaps it will give them a season to harvest, as well. As 1991 draws to a close, there is a certain optimism among those in the aid business, since the logistical logjams caused by war have finally been broken and food is finally running down-river. Perhaps, with a little luck, Africa will once again be as full of promise as it was 30 years ago, on the eve of independence, when the continent produced far more food than it needed and sold the surplus on the world market to the hungry denizens of faraway continents, such as Europe. Africa might do so again, but only if Africans are freed from the chains cast by their own leaders and allowed the chance to survive, even prosper.

Playboy Magazine November 1991

 Copyright 1991 Playboy  

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