Poor African Nations Receiving Help : Agencies Hoping to Broaden Famine Aid

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Times Staff Writer

The staff of Africare, a Washington-based relief organization, canceled a long-planned party because the room where it was to take place had been turned into a command center for Ethiopian famine relief.

In New York, Catholic Relief Services has received contributions of $29 million in 11 weeks since late October to fight famine in Africa, compared with the $800,000 it collected in all of the previous year.

And at the federal Agency for International Development, Administrator M. Peter McPherson calls the U.S. government’s aid to the stricken African country “enormous” and “historical.” The U.S. government has provided Ethiopia, a Marxist nation, with $125 million in aid since Oct. 1, up from $21 million for the entire previous 12 months.


While relief officials take heart from these dramatic responses to Ethiopia’s plight, they cannot help but wish that more had been done sooner.

That it was not stems from a patchwork of problems: international political bickering, public inattention and the resistance of some relief agencies themselves to aggressive fund-raising methods.

Long-Term Solutions Now that public attention is riveted on Ethiopia, relief officials are attempting to generate concern for other African nations imperiled by drought and famine. And they are seeking long-term solutions to what has been a recurring problem.

Failing to do so, said Gene Thiemann, spokesman for Lutheran World Relief, would be like “filling up the trucks with Band-Aids once more.”

It was on Oct. 23 that NBC-TV brought the Ethiopian famine into America’s living rooms with heart-rending images of starving children, their bodies shrunken and their bellies bloated, in the arms of parents in crowded camps.

Food shortages pose a continuing threat for almost 8 million of the country’s 42 million people, experts say, and as many as 1 million were estimated to have died last year from starvation.


Private relief officials have charged--at least until recently that the Reagan Administration hesitated to provide aid to Soviet-supported Ethiopia, while the Ethiopian government appeared more interested in waging a civil war against Eritrean and Tigrean separatists than in feeding its people.

After the NBC News report, other television networks and newspapers stepped up their coverage of the Ethiopian famine. “For the first time in a long time,” said Melissa Lowe, spokesman for World Vision, an interdenominational relief agency in Monrovia, Calif., “the media felt the same kind of urgency that we did.”

Consequently, private, nonprofit relief agencies such as World Vision are enjoying an unprecedented bonanza of financial contributions that buy food, shelter, medical care, blankets and other items for the Ethiopians.

“I have never seen a fund-raising effort that brought in so much money from so many people in so little time,” said Beth Griffin, spokesman for Catholic Relief Services.

Griffin and other agency officials concede that more aggressive fund-raising techniques may have brought in more contributions earlier.

Catholic Relief Services, like many other such groups, generally solicits aid only from a proven group of contributors--in the case of the Catholic agency, a list of 100,000 persons--and it made no special appeals for Ethiopia.


“We didn’t think it fair to single out one country when so many were in need,” she said, noting that some 30 African countries face the prospect of drought and famine similar to that in Ethiopia.

But the realization that massive numbers of people will contribute to a cause apparently is moving some of the agencies to change the way they solicit funds.

The increased attention to Africa’s problems pleases no one more than C. Payne Lucas, director of Africare, who--like many relief agency officials--had labored in relative obscurity for years. Lucas’ agency has collected about $600,000 since October and he is hoping to convert the new interest into lasting benefits for Africa.

“The weight of public opinion has changed,” said Lucas, who believes the time has come for bold initiatives throughout the African continent. Among his ideas is a plan to rebuild Africa “in the way we rebuilt Europe” after World War II.

He also advocates a U.S. subsidy that would raise salaries for low-paid Africans, thereby encouraging some talented and educated ones in this country to return home.

The two ideas “would be a hell of a lot cheaper than putting American technicians in those countries,” he said.


Although the U.S. government provides Ethiopia with emergency aid, federal law prohibits long-term developmental aid because of $10 million to $20 million in outstanding U.S. claims resulting from Ethiopia’s takeover of U.S. property after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

Lucas and other relief officials, who face no such restrictions, said long-term development in Africa depends heavily on fundamental changes such as stabilizing governments, attacking illiteracy, improving hygiene, giving more technical aid to farmers and providing incentives to keep people on farms instead of moving into cities.

“Development is a critical part of relief,” said Melissa Lowe, who speaks for World Vision. “We don’t believe in just going in and feeding people and leaving.”

Staff librarian Abebe Gessesse assisted in the preparation of this article.