Aid lacking for Africa's hunger crisis

With famine looming in Southern Africa, CARE hopes this month to distribute seeds and fertilizer to 20,000 hungry farming families in Malawi in an effort to ensure they don't face another bleak season next year.

But the international relief and development organization has so far raised only a quarter of the half-million dollars it needs to fund the effort. That means only 5,000 families will receive help as planting gets under way this month.

"The problem we are now encountering is that there are so many disasters happening in the world that for a slow-growing disaster like the one we now have in Southern Africa, it's more difficult to capture media attention as well as donor interest," said Jean Michel Vigreux, CARE's regional director for Southern Africa.

A surge in natural disasters in the past year--including the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. and a major earthquake in Pakistan--has tightened competition for aid donations and left many of the world's less-noticed trouble spots struggling for the help they need.

Africa is experiencing its most widespread hunger in decades, with the World Food Program and other aid agencies struggling to feed 43 million people from Niger to Malawi.

Farming in Southern Africa, in particular, has been devastated by a virulent combination of drought, AIDS and, in nations such as Zimbabwe, economic mismanagement that threatens a region once able to feed not only itself but its neighbors.

"The greatest humanitarian crisis today is not in Pakistan, the tsunami region or Darfur, though they are all severe," said James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, at a recent food crisis meeting in New York. "It is the gradual disintegration of social structures in Southern Africa."

Finding money to help hungry Africans, however, is increasingly difficult. A sense that Africa's problems are intractable has eroded donor eagerness to help in the region, and gradually growing hunger is a tough sell compared with compelling images of earthquake-shattered villages, hurricane-flooded homes and Asian towns wiped out by giant waves.

"Hunger crises tend to be a more slow-moving thing. They creep up on you and people's eyes glaze over. But that doesn't mean people stop dying," said Michael Huggins, a spokesman for WFP in Southern Africa.Seven months ago, the WFP launched an appeal for $400 million to feed hungry Southern Africans until the next harvest, in April 2006. So far only $250 million has arrived.

"Now it's coming to crunch time, and we're still short $150million and the window is closing," Huggins said.

Because shipping food in from abroad can take months, the shortfall means the agency may not be able to feed many of the region's hungry, even if new donations begin arriving. The organization has appealed for international donations of cash, rather than food, in an effort to try to buy excess food in the few parts of Southern Africa that have it for sale. But as the hungry season approaches, prices for the available grain are rising sharply.

"Nobody has the purchasing power to buy what is available anymore," Huggins said. That means the organization probably will be able to feed only the most desperate of the 10 million hungry people in Southern Africa, particularly toward the end of the lean months.

The aid shortfall is particularly bad news in a region struggling with the world's worst AIDS epidemic. Without adequate food, those infected with HIV generally develop AIDS and die much more rapidly, and those on anti-retroviral treatment often cannot continue taking the drugs, doctors say.

That means the region may be faced next year with tens of thousands of new orphans and that HIV-infected farmers may be too sick to farm next year, reducing the chances for a recovery in production."It's a very complex humanitarian crisis in southern Africa and it's not going away," Huggins said.

To try to close the shortfall in donations, aid organizations are appealing to new donors, including corporations and oil-rich countries that have benefited from a surge in oil prices.Corporations, however, appear to prefer donating primarily to high-profile disasters.

"It seems they have decided it's a good opportunity to brand themselves as good corporate citizens," he said.

Aid agencies say some of the responsibility for mitigating Africa's seemingly endless hunger crises also lies with its governments. Zimbabwe, for instance, has millions hungry this year in part because President Robert Mugabe has handed much of the country's farmland to cronies uninterested in farming, and because his economic policies have nearly bankrupted the nation and left it short of diesel fuel to run its tractors.

Elsewhere, governments have lagged in introducing drought-resistant crops and pushing farmers to plant a wider variety of food species. Until that happens, "we're going to have these problems," Huggins warned.

[Article by Laurie Goering, Chicago Tribune]

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