40 million starving 'as world watches Iraq'
UN agency accuses west of pledging to feed victims of Gulf war while concern for plight of hungry Africans fades
Rory Carroll in Kanywambizi, Zimbabwe
Wednesday April 9, 2003
Forty million Africans are at risk of starving but are not getting enough aid because the world is distracted by Iraq, the World Food Programme has warned.
In an impassioned appeal to the United Nations security council, James Morris, the UN agency's executive director, accused the west of double standards.
"How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any other part of the world? We simply cannot let this stand."
The agency was $1bn (£640m) short of the $1.8bn it needed for emergency food, he said. "We urgently need more funds in the next several months to avert severe hunger among refugees," he said.
"The mid-February shortfall was $84m. Some refugees are already receiving only half their monthly food rations."
Africa's need for humanitarian aid was greater than Iraq's, yet it was receiving less attention and less money.
"They are struggling against starvation, and I can assure you these 40 million Africans, most of them women and children, would find it an immeasurable blessing to have a month's worth of food."
Mr Morris contrasted the British and US governments' pledges to feed Iraqis with what he considered fading concern for Africa.
"As much as I don't like it, I cannot escape the thought that we have a double standard."
According to the agency, food shortages threaten 14 million in Ethiopia, 7 million in Zimbabwe, 3.2 million in Malawi, 2.9 million in Sudan, 2.7 million in Zambia, 1.9 million in Angola, 1 million in Eritrea, as well as millions more in Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Uganda, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the western Sahel - those countries in the dry belt south of the Sahara.
Causes ranged from bad weather to warfare, but hunger had been compounded by the HIV/Aids pandemic.
By weakening the immune system, the disease could turn malnutrition into a killer, one that targeted breadwinners, leaving fields fallow and families impoverished.
In fewer than 20 years, the disease is estimated to have killed more than 8 million farmworkers and orphaned 4.2 million children in Africa.
"The stark message is this crisis is not going to go away. We will have a perpetual crisis," said Brenda Barton, an agency spokeswoman in Kenya. "We are seeing a redefinition of famine, of humanitarian crises as we know them."
The outskirts of Kanywambizi in western Zimbabwe illustrates the point, with fields of shrivelled maize amid huts of sick, enfeebled farmers. "All we have to eat are these watermelons. Once they are finished, that's it," said Ngululeko Sibanda, 23, a father of two, yesterday.
However, there is hope in the short term. Despite turmoil in Zimbabwe and fighting in Congo and western Africa, crops were planted and harvests are due.
By June Zimbabwe's government expects the number in need of food aid to more than halve, to 3 million, a view shared by several aid agencies and diplomats. Once harvests are consumed, the numbers will rise again.
Malawi's needs have dwindled due to a good harvest, and some aid agencies say too much food aid has been imported. The government has been allowed to sell part of its grain reserves, though there is fear that local farmers will be ruined if food is dumped on the market.
The WFP's decision to step up its appeal is partly a political calculation: Africa's food shortage will last for years. Because aid has so far averted horrific scenes of hunger, there is a risk donors will consider the crisis resolved, especially with the distraction of Iraq.
Since September 11 and Washington's war on terror, the agency has learned to shout louder in order to gain attention and funds.
"I am very concerned, because the world's attention is so focused on
Iraq, that from Afghanistan to South Africa, funding for these real ongoing
crises could be put in jeopardy," said Carol Bellamy, director of Unicef,
the UN children's fund,in Johannesburg.
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