Julian Fiiochowski, the Director of Cafod, described to Peter Stanford the role of development agencies in the current drought.
DROUGHT and famine are threatening the African continent on a completely unprecedented scale. It is estimated that the lives of 150 million people are at risk — one in three of all Africans.
It is difficult for those in the so-called developed nations to appreciate to just what extent Africans are suffering.
The scene of desolation in many areas is quite unbelievable. Cathy Corcoran, Cafod's Africa Projects Officer, returned from a trip to the northern provinces of Ethiopia recently. She said: "It is difficult to believe that the country was ever capable of producing food. It looks like the surface of the moon".
Fr Lionel Gomez, the Development Co-ordinator of Marsabit diocese in Kenya, has written to Cafod of the sufferings of the people in his region in the face of the drought.
He reported that over 80 per cent of the animals have died, hospitals and health centres are overcrowded, and "the death rate is rapidly increasing".
In one village in his area, over 90 per cent of the inhabitants were sick, and Fr Gomez was unable to recognise some of them because they had become so thin. He wrote also of his fears for the long-term effects of the crisis. "After a drought there is nothing left. It destroys society".
If these individual accounts are multiplied many times over, something of the depth of the crisis in Africa begins to appear. The drought is severely affecting the continent across a band in the shape of the figure 7 — stretching from Senegal and Mauritania in the west, across the Sahel region to Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa, and then down through Kenya to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the south. Even prosperous South Africa is suffering.
The World Health Organisation has predicted that five million children alone could die this year in Africa through starvation. Malnutrition over long periods will leave those who survive with mental as well as physical scars for a lifetime.
The drought is the culmination of repeated lack of rainfall over several years. It has decimated agricultural production and left the stricken continent at the mercy of the western donors. In Mauritania alone grain production has plurnmetted from 78,000 tonnes in 1981-82 to only 20,000 tonnes in 1982-83. That last figure represents only 15 per cent of the national grain requirement.
Over Africa as a whole, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that cereal production has fallen by 3.5 million tonnes between 1981 and 1983.
Theoretically that defecit would be made good either by importing cereal from large scale producers in the west (the EEC grain mountains immediately spring to mind), or, in the long term, by encouraging more efficient local food production. However, the harsh reality is that African governments cannot afford the first course, and have long ignored the second.
The African economies have been forced into recession by the general world trend. Mineral prices have fallen on the world markets denying countries such as iron ore-rich Mauritania much needed foreign revenue.
Loans from the International Monetary Fund to support ailing economies have left several African countries with crippling repayment schedules. Reliance on credit, while postponing the economic crisis in the short term, has now led many states into a critical position of indebtedness which means that they cannot afford to feed their people in normal conditions, let alone in a drought. The misguided food policies of African governments must also be taken into account. With the encouragement of multinational companies, they have placed too great an emphasis, both in financial resources and in terms of land use, on "cash crops" — luxuries grown for export and consumption in the developed world.
At the same time the African states have relied on food aid from developed countries to make up any shortfalls in basic needs. Local food production — growing the basic crops that local people need to survive — has been neglected, and in some cases actively discouraged.
The failings of these policies have now been cruelly exposed by severe drought. Africa is the only continent which produces less food per capita now than 20 years ago.
Other weaknesses too have been highlighted by the current crisis. For example, inadequate measures have been undertaken to halt the advance of the Sahara desert. The United Nations Environmental Programme has estimated that sand covers an additional six million hectares of useable agricultural land each year. The destructive force of warfare has also added its strength to the devastating effects of drought. In two of the worst affected countries, Mozambique and Ethiopia, civil war has been raging.
In Mozambique, SouthAfrican backed terrorists have roamed the countryside, stopping vital supplies getting through to drought-stricken areas, while 100,000 people have died.
In Chad, Angola and Sudan the effectiveness of relief agencies has been compromised by civil war and strife. A priest working in northern Ethiopia has reported recently that he had to wait for three weeks to a month for vital supplies of food to reach him. They could only be transported in army convoys. Meanwhile people die of starvation.
So far the western relief agencies and their supporters have reacted quickly and effectively to the growing crisis.
In this country Cafod have been administering a special appeal by the bishops of England and Wales which has already raised in excess of £300,000. Much of that money has been immediately channelled out to where it is most needed.
Among those countries to receive emergency grants in recent weeks have been Ghana, Mali, Gambia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Mozambique. The money has provided foods, medicines, emergency well-digging equipment and seed for planting next year.
The British Government have so far this year given £240,000 to Cafod alone for emergency relief. Oxfam and other agencies have responded to the crisis in much the same way.
However, emergency relief is only one part of the work of agencies such as Cafod.
At the same time as providing emergency relief to the starving, development agencies have to maintain their long-term projects aimed at attacking endemic poverty and hunger in the Third World at its roots through community-based land and health schemes.
Fr Gomez, writing from Kenya, has reported that in "the consuming effect of a drought, our development. programmes have now been given secondary consideration". He stressed that it is now above all a question of survival.
The drought has caused starvation on a massive scale, and therefore a concentration on emergency relief to save lives. But the terrible effects of that drought are to be found in more humanly regulatable areas than the weather.
Development schemes have started to redirect food production in Africa towards the needs of the African people, and to teach of the importance of using the earth's precious resources more carefully. Other economic and political faults have yet to be attacked at root.
Until this is done starvation will remain a looming shadow on the African, and on the world, horizon.