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Ethiopia: Finally, Relief

4 minute read
Jamie Murphy

TV film triggers a flood of aid

For more than two years the horror has been creeping across the African continent: a devastating drought that has left in its wake some 35 million starving men, women and children. In Ethiopia alone, where at least 6 million people are destitute, this year’s death toll may soon reach 900,000. Despite warnings from relief agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that the globe is facing the greatest human disaster in recent history, the response has been widespread indifference.

Last week that apathy vanished. The catalyst was dramatic television footage, shot by a BBC team and aired in the U.S. by NBC, that showed grim scenes of emaciated children and rows of corpses laid out on the cracked Ethiopian plain. Within hours, contributions from individual American citizens began pouring in to such relief agencies as Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam America and Grassroots International. All have been issuing warnings of the impending disaster in Africa for years. The U.S. Government added $10 million to the $35 million already allotted for food aid to the beleaguered country, doubling last year’s total U.S. aid to Ethiopia.

As concern mounted, the trickle of international aid became a flood. The Soviet Union, which has largely ignored the disaster developing inside its Communist ally, announced that it was sending 400 to 500 trucks, 16 planes and 24 helicopters to distribute foodstuffs. The European Community granted nearly $42 million in emergency aid to Ethiopia, Mauritania, Niger, Mali and Chad for this year. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome approved $415.8 million in emergency aid to Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Lesotho. And Australia added $3.5 million in extra food aid to the $9 million already pledged to African countries. Said UNICEF’s representative in Addis Ababa: “We have been asking for help since early 1983. It seems you have to have thousands of corpses before people will sit up and take notice.”

But the spectacle of human beings with bones as thin and brittle as dead twigs produced controversy as well as compassion. The Rev. Charles Elliott, a British relief official who until last month was the director of Christian Aid, claimed that the U.S. and Britain had withheld assistance with the intention of destabilizing Ethiopia’s Marxist government. M. Peter McPherson, U.S. administrator of the Agency for International Development, denied such charges and instead blamed the Soviet Union for its “callous indifference” to the plight of its African ally. The Soviets, said McPherson, have provided Ethiopia with some $3 billion worth of weapons but only 10,000 tons of rice—a food that Ethiopians normally do not eat.

McPherson also lambasted Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam for spending more than $100 million two months ago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the coup that brought his government to power. Mengistu, he claimed, was “not especially interested” in feeding his starving millions.

McPherson’s remarks did not appease some Administration critics, who believe that even the increased U.S. aid package is too small for a country with large stores of surplus grain. Said House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “Something is very, very wrong. We turn on the news and we see African children starving to death, and we get no explanation whatever of why we Americans are allowing this to happen.”

Late last week U.S. and British planes jammed with food and medical supplies began arriving in Ethiopia. Until this month, shipments had remained stalled in port in Assab, and tons of grain were reported to be rotting on the dockside.

The few trucks and vans available to distribute supplies are in disrepair, and spare parts are scarce. There are only about 6,000 trucks in the entire country, and only a few hundred have been diverted from military use.

The cause of Ethiopia’s agony has been a series of disastrous harvests caused by the prolonged drought. The harvest of teff, the grain crop that provides the main source of food for Ethiopians, was very poor last winter, according to a U.N. senior official in Rome, and the secondary crop that came in last spring was “a virtual failure.” Said the official: “The tragedy in Ethiopia demands not only an immediate response but a sustained response.”

—By Jamie Murphy. Reported by Johanna McGeary/Washington and Maryanne Rollers/Nairobi

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