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Africa and Politics of Compassion

Times Staff Writer

The topic was Africa. Specifically, the speakers were referring to the crisis that has been brought on by the drought and famine devastating the Sahelian regions south of the Sahara.

“It is probably the greatest calamity that has ever befallen humankind,” Bradford Morse, director of the U.N.'s Office of Emergency Operations in Africa, said.

” . . . The greatest human challenge we’ve ever confronted outside of war,” Maurice Strong, executive coordinator of the same U.N. office said.

” . . . We see African long-term development as the development challenge,” John Sewell, director of the Overseas Development Council, called it.

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As the audience well knew, no one was resorting to hyperbole. That would almost have been impossible in a situation that has placed 30 million people in immediate peril, driven 10 million from their homes, taken the lives of two million, most of them children, with at least that many more certain to die.

The audience consisted of some 250 people, most of them members of American private voluntary organizations--referred to as PVOs--that have relief, rehabilitation or development programs in Africa. Their organizations, some 104 of them--many of which work throughout the developing world--have recently formed a coalition called Interaction, the American Council for Voluntary International Action.

They convened in Malibu last week, at Pepperdine University, for Interaction’s annual forum. The forum’s theme, “The Africa Initiative: The Challenge for Private Voluntary Organizations.”

Their timing was critical. More than one speaker echoed Morse’s warning that the next few weeks would be crucial ones for Africa. There is plentiful food sitting on the docks, he said, “but people will die just as surely,” for want of trucks and fuel to get it to them. The much-needed rains, now that they have started, are bringing their own possible calamities--spread of disease to weakened, unsheltered people, destruction of stockpiled foods, disruption of road transport.

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Interaction had settled on the Africa Initiative theme at a board meeting last October--by coincidence, Peter Davies, Interaction’s president, told them--on the very day the now famous BBC tapes of Ethiopia were shown on NBC. Now the world knew what they had known, and what they had seen coming. And, beyond the regional crisis, they had also known that in general Africa has not been progressing, but going backwards, that the successes seen in most of the developing world have not been replicated there.

That they had known; that they had been seeking before the showing of the tapes to get the world’s attention, without much effect, was of little comfort or moral reassurance. Many of them had been working for years to improve life in Africa.

For all their good will, good works, experience and expertise they were “stunned and humbled by what has happened in Africa,” as a conference planning committee put it in the advance discussion paper on development it had prepared.

Forum chairperson Nan Borton told them the outcome of the conference hinged on that paper. They had to read it. It was a time to ask some hard questions, to review and reevaluate, and then get going again. The hard questions were in the paper: Had they, as a whole, operating programs throughout the world, been slow to shift their resources to Africa? Had they been working in partnership with Africans, encouraging African solutions, reaching the poorest, involving beneficiaries in decisions about their lives? Were their projects cost effective? Had they become part of the problem by being fragmented and uncoordinated?

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Past Problems

Most seemed prepared to consider such questions, to listen to each other and to the American, international and African officials who had come to talk with them.

They talked of hit-and-run relief in the past that had fostered dependence or had been so massively administered, that it had disrupted or destroyed rural village life and self-sufficiency. Uncoordinated efforts where, for example, the well that is dug to relieve thirst results in overpopulation and overgrazing of the land around it. Grandiose schemes for development that had emphasized cash crops and failed to consult with or recognize the importance of the individual small farmer, nor realize that many of those small farmers are women.

There have been plenty of successes, and, by now at least, most PVOs are at least trying to stay on the right track regarding planning and coordination. In the face of the crisis, however, that is not where the emphasis was placed at the conference.

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It was not a conference about blame placing, and no one suggested PVOs brought on the tragedy. Much of it was not manmade. But, to the extent that people had caused it, there was plenty of blame to go around. For example, the American government had never chosen to invest substantially in Africa, several speakers pointed out, as it had, proportionately, for example, in Asia, the Middle East or Latin America.

African Responsibility

Africans themselves had to take responsibility for some of it. The legacy of colonialism could not be blamed for everything. One African, Abdel Magid Beshir al Ahmadi, the Sudan’s commissioner of refugees, acknowledged that. Africans had to ask themselves why half the world’s refugee population was African. They had to acknowledge they too had ignored and ridiculed their grass roots and traditions, as had their colonizers. They had to notice with sadness that young men and women were coming from America and Europe to help while their own urban youths sat in the cities.

Another African, Oumarou G. Youssoufou of Niger, who is executive secretary of the Organization of African Unity to the U.N., was in a mood to do some blame placing. He promised the group he would be undiplomatic despite his 25 years in diplomacy and made good on his promise. Sounding like a man who felt he had been at the receiving end of Western paternalism and racism once too often, he said he was fed up with all the accusations of African corruption and undemocratic, often totalitarian, governments. And, he put the group on notice: planning that did not involve extensive consultation with Africans, nor defer to the planning they themselves were doing, was not only an insult. They would find it was in vain. He assured them he believed their good intent, and included the Soviet bloc in his criticism of the developed world’s attitude and behavior. They had to take into account, however, the disastrous effect of low international prices for African export commodities and the servicing of high interest loans from foreign banks.

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Youssoufou acknowledged he was being brutal to them (they would later give him a standing ovation) but for all of the self-righteousness of his posture, when the question was asked, “How do we deal with the political reality of Ethiopia in trying to get aid there?” his answer and attitude seemed to come from a very pained heart. It amounted to a plea. He had been there in December, he said, and had been in a camp where half were dying of starvation, the other half of pneumonia.

“There are some political situations where you look through a tunnel and see a light. Ethiopia’s (with three movements working against the government) is a very different situation. I honestly don’t see the answer. I really don’t know. There are political problems I don’t think we can stop. . . . But if you have been there, I know I don’t have to ask you to continue to struggle along. I know you cannot stop. It would be inhuman.”

What it came down to was that for all concerned, the crisis had to serve as a turning point, Maurice Strong told them. It could no longer be business as usual for Africa. It was a new initiative that was going to be needed. He called it “an alliance with Africa, not for Africa.”

That, and the recognition that the alliance will have to be a very long one seemed to be the overriding consensus of the conference. As was the worrisome realization, second only to the challenge facing them in Africa itself, that the American public had to be convinced, educated and financially committed for the long, long years of prosaic, undramatic, unemotional development.

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Since the BBC tapes had been shown, 29 of their agencies had raised more than $120 million in cash contributions. Davies announced that 75% of those funds were going for relief; 25% for rehabilitation. The range for relief is a wide one--from shipments of food, medicine, tents and blankets, to the operation of feeding stations, to the delivery of trucks for transport, drilling equipment for wells, to specialized projects, such as Operation California’s delivery to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees of a complete package disaster hospital and full equipment for five rural health stations to Helen Keller International’s large shipments of Vitamin A to stop the spread of blindness. Rehabilitation will include returning people to their villages, helping them with seeds and tools for replanting.

The response that brought all that money was unprecedented, and it staggered them. “Not since the Marshall Plan . . . " they kept saying, but the Marshall Plan had gone on to include vast amounts for redevelopment.

Less Newsworthy

What would happen when the pictures of starving babies disappear from the television and front pages? People saved from starvation are rightly perceived as less newsworthy, they agreed. The public won’t pay attention to that. It does not want to watch a boy dig a well or go to school.

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What was more staggering, and disquieting, to them was the phenomenal success of “We Are the World,” the song recorded by American pop singers to aid the relief efforts. USA for Africa, the organization formed to handle the funds reported that sales had reached $47 million. Its executive director, Martin Rogol, had come to tell them about it on the eve of the symbolic trip he was taking, along with some of the artists, to Africa, to demonstrate to the public that the goods were being delivered.

They were in admiration and some awe of what that one song had done. That the media was the message to that extent left some feeling unappreciated for their mundane efforts. (“Do you think it’s right? " one woman asked, consternation and hurt sounding in her voice, of the song’s success.) Right or wrong, the consensus seemed to be the song was clearly showing them where it was at--it being the way to reach the American, and world, public.

“Marty,” Maurice Strong called out from the dais to Rogol as the latter was preparing to leave the auditorium, “you and your colleagues in a very real sense carry with you much of the hopes for the future of this enterprise,” referring to the trip’s potential for maintaining the public’s interest.

How to keep the public’s notoriously short attention span, how to turn the emotional response to the famine into an informed, long-term commitment to less dramatic, historically unpopular development was a secondary theme of the conference. At times it seemed like a concern, at times like an obsession.

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“Americans must learn how to give to development,” C. Payne Lucas, executive director of Africare, said. “Otherwise, all is lost.”

Later, talking informally, Lucas allowed his frustration about development to take a satirical turn. He had commented maybe they all should have been writing songs. Now, he said, maybe the way to go was divide up the country--put John Denver in the South and Midwest, Lionel Richie in Texas and California, Boy George in the Northeast. Let them give a month of concerts for development and see who could raise the most.

‘Isn’t That Ridiculous?’

“ ‘We Are the World’ will end with saving lives in Ethiopia. But if that’s all, we’ll put them back on their feet only to starve again . . . . Now, how in the world are we going to get them to sing a song for 100 agronomists? Isn’t that ridiculous? But you know damn well that’s what we need. We need American know-how and that costs money. “

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John Sewell, who chairs Interaction’s public policy committee, told them, as did U.N. officials, that they had to plan on the following: The emergency phase of the crisis, with more waves of refugees and displaced, encamped people and need for relief efforts will continue at least through 1986; rehabilitation had to happen more or less concomitantly with relief, helping those whose lives had been saved return to their homes, providing them with tools and seed so they could resume food production; and the commitment had to be made for long-term development, 20 to 30 years of it, development that could not be expected to produce results in a short period of time.

Getting the American government, and the American public to support long-term development was going to take work, Sewell and other said. The PVOs are going to have to commit themselves to development education on the home front, they realize. And so does the United States Agency for International Development that provides much American foreign aid through grants to the PVOs.

For the first time in its history, AID official Thomas McKay said, three years ago AID had adopted its first domestic policy. It has been funding PVOs for small development education projects, committing $2.8 million.

“We recognized there wasn’t a sufficient amount of understanding,” McKay said. “We wanted to help develop a more intensified level of public discussion of the issues, not for a opinion, but an opinion . . . We’ve reached a point where the American people can no longer remain isolated from what is going on in the daily lives of people around the world.”

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Little Pressure on Congress

Earlier, Rep. Peter Kostmayer (D-Pa) from the Foreign Affairs Committee, told them flatly that one reason Africa had never been a big recipient of foreign aid was because the pressure on Congress for it had been weak. It had not ben perceived as strategically important, what work had been done there was not perceived as successful, there were fewer cultural and ethnic ties to it among the American people, it did not have a strong domestic constituency.

They needed to build a constituency, he told them, and another speaker then urged them to coordinate with American blacks who were increasingly concerned about Africa. Some 12% of the population were of African origin.

In all the strategizing, Kostmayer urged them not to forget the obvious, whether they were appealing to Congress or the American people: “Sometimes the most compelling arguments are humanitarian ones.”

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It ended on a positive note. In America people were finally paying attention. It was, to a large extent, up to the PVOs to bring the public along with them now for the long work ahead.

And all concerned had learned from their mistakes, experience and history.

“There is real hope for Africa,” Strong had told them, concluding his dire remarks on the severity and continuance of the emergency phase of the crisis. “These are fine people,” he said of the refugees, people whose culture and values were intact. “They can become true agents of change in their society. They haven’t had their hands out. They’re rural people who’ve never received aid. Anyone who has gone into the camps has seen it--all those little children reaching out, not like this to get something from you” he demonstrated, holding his hand out palm up, then turning it and reaching out with it, letting the memory of a child’s smile rest on his face for a second. “They just want to touch you.”


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