Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Disaster relief does more than just feed starving stomachs

By Michael Birnbaum

MUNICH (DPA): The same plagues that bedeviled Africa at the close of the last century -- starvation in Ethiopia, murderous land disputes in Zimbabwe, Biblical flooding in Mozambique -- still plague the continent as the new century dawns.

The rest of the world still suffers from the same problem it has always had when it comes to Africa, too. It doesn't really have a clue how to solve the problems that besiege the troubled continent. And so, we keep on trying the same old solutions.

Wherever innocent Africans look like they have no chance of surviving without outside aid, we in the affluent northern hemisphere always try to lend a helping hand, be it after the floods in Mozambique or the three-year-long drought in Africa's horn.

We recognize our obligation -- our just obligation -- to protect and help the victims of Africa's wars: the refugees, displaced persons, the women, children and old men trapped in combat zones. They need help in the form of food, water, housing and at least minimal medical care to survive a war.

Helping our fellow man is our duty -- and so we help. The disaster relief assistance we offer in critical emergency situations has no connection with foreign aid programs.

Foreign aid is long-term assistance with the declared, though not yet achieved goal, of permanently improving life in the relatively poor southern hemisphere.

Disaster relief is a horse of a different color, an act of spontaneous solidarity between two countries. It is the uniformed arm reaching from a helicopter doorway to pluck a drowning person from a flood-gorged river. It's the sack of donated grain that gives an impoverished family in the sandy wastes of the Ogaden another month's lease on life.

Disaster relief means standing by your fellow man, giving help with no strings attached, without preconditions. It means staying neutral. But things don't usually work out that way.

Disaster relief, especially in impoverished societies like those in Africa, usually changes the economic reality and with it the military and political balance of power and the course of economic development.

In Ethiopia, for instance, eight million people face the risk of starving to death according to United Nations estimates. About 170,000 tons of food ware necessary to prevent that, says the World Food Program (WFP). But since Eritrea broke away from it, Ethiopia hasn't even had a coastal harbor of its own.

Most aid shipments to Ethiopia arrive via the harbor in the one-time French colony of Djibouti, where local businessmen charge about US$12 per ton -- roughly a monthly turn-over of about $1.9 million, which, in the course of eight months, adds up to around $15.3 million.

Once the aid goods have been brought ashore, they still have to be trucked in to the famine-stricken areas. As many as 1,000 vehicles are scheduled to be in service soon.

Getting a ton of aid food from its donor land to the starving people it's meant to help costs $230, according to the WFP, which says that all told 1.35 million tons are due to be delivered. That translates to about $326 million for transit. Disaster relief has become a big business that it can make some local businessmen rich overnight.

Plans to expand Djibouti's harbor and increase its capacity are already in the works so relief goods can be brought ashore more quickly. Further plans call for making greater use of the harbor in Berbera in Somalia and for improving overland connections in the drought-stricken areas and between them and the two harbors.

The disaster relief efforts to aid the starving nomads in southern Ethiopia have already changed the whole economic climate in Africa's horn.

The aid workers' rush to save lives has also resulted, apparently unintentionally, in changes to the infrastructure that may prove strategically decisive.

One of the prime stakes in the Ethiopian-Eritrean war is access to the sea.

Eritrea, with its two ocean ports of Massaua and Assab, relies heavily on its earnings from handling the transit of imports to and exports from Ethiopia.

But once overland routes to the harbors in Djibouti and Berbera have been built, Ethiopia will no longer have to ship its wares through Eritrea -- instead, Addis Ababa will be in a position to starve the small coastal country out economically.

The dramatic changes that apparently neutral disaster relief can cause have long been known. In the 1980s, Graham Hancock wrote a scathing indictment of the relief industry entitled Lords of Poverty.

In the 1990s, Michael Marren, once a committed member of America's Peace Corps, accused the professional relief agencies of having gutted Ethiopia's neighbor, Somalia, during the government of then-President Said Barre.

The aid organizations, said Marren, had to share the blame for the Somalia's collapse and its subsequent civil war which brought on the famine that made world headlines in 1992.

Marren called his book on the catastrophic results of the well-intentioned relief workers The Road to Hell. In their eagerness, Marren charged, the workers ignored the political and economic effects of their intervention.

In Somalia, the United States and the United Nations ultimately intervened militarily to end the starvation and anarchy. Washington spent more annually on its military intervention than it ever spent on non-military development aid to the entire continent of Africa.

For 15 years and more, relief organizations have been flying food into the civil war-torn areas of Sudan and Angola. The warring factions have long since integrated the relief workers into their calculations and strategies.

Does that mean we should cut off our assistance completely? Not in the slightest -- but it does mean that we should remember that intervention and disaster relief aid are often far from neutral.

We should bear that in mind when debating when and whether to intervene in a problem or not -- and understanding that, we should conduct those aid missions consciously and under conditions we have set ourselves.