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Donors Pay Port Charges to Unload Grain : Ethiopia Reaps Fee Harvest in Famine

Times Staff Writer

Famine is big business, and the Marxist government here is reaping large profits from service fees it is charging international donors to bring in emergency relief supplies.

Western economists say Ethiopia will realize about $20 million in hard currency this year as a spinoff from the famine.

Most of the revenue will come from the $12.60 a ton Ethiopia charges in port fees on grain unloaded here. It is one of the highest port tariffs in Africa.

The United States has paid more than $5 million since December to unload the 400,000 tons of grain it has given Ethiopia.

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$750,000 in Port Fees

World Vision International, a Christian relief agency, recently had to hand over $750,000 in port fees before officials would allow a ship carrying 40,000 tons of grain to dock; it had been kept waiting for eight days.

Concern, an Irish aid organization, paid $282,000 to offload 2,000 tons in the port of Assab and transport it to the famine region.

Ethiopia is also charging steep duties for non-food relief. Several four-wheel-drive Land Rovers, paid for with money raised by rock star Bob Geldof, have been on the docks for weeks because of import fees demanded by customs officials.

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Thus far, the government has waived landing fees of $500,000 for relief planes arriving at the international airport here. But Western relief specialists say they expect the authorities to revoke the waiver soon to raise more hard currency.

Most of the government’s foreign exchange was spent before the famine struck on Soviet arms valued at $1.5 billion.

International relief experts said that it is not unusual for a Third World government to charge donor nations and agencies for handling emergency supplies. Many of these experts are critical of the government’s economic and social policies, but they generally agree that Ethiopia has done a good job in running the emergency operation.

There is not the slightest hint, they say, that the ruling military men are siphoning off funds for their personal use. Nor is there any evidence, they say, that grain and emergency supplies have been diverted to unintended recipients or sold on the open market. They believe that, with few exceptions, the aid is getting through to those who need it most.

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“I admit in an operation of this size there are going to be exceptions, but we have clear records to prove that corruption and diversion are not problems here,” said Kurt Janssen, the U.N. assistant secretary general for emergency operations in Ethiopia.

“Half the food Ethiopia receives is distributed not by the government but by the foreign organizations themselves,” he said. “For the other half, we monitor the distribution with eight people in the field--two Swiss, two Brits, an American, a Finn, a Swede and a Norwegian.”

The influx of Westerners involved in the relief effort has subtly changed the character of Addis Ababa and resulted in something of a mini-boom. With the exception of the government, which is uneasy about the prospect of having a permanent Western presence, many pro-Western Ethiopians seem delighted with the turn of events.

‘Business Is Good’

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“For the first time in 10 years, business is good again,” said the owner of a souvenir shop near Winston Churchill Avenue. “The Russians never spend anything. But the Westerners, particularly the Americans, are different. They have money.”

Seven years ago, the occupancy rate at the 241-room Addis Ababa Hilton, one of the best hotels in black Africa, was as low as 18%. Today it is averaging nearly 80%, and the Hilton is building a new wing with 205 rooms.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented boom,” said the general manager, Jeremy Frankel.

Most of the good housing in the capital has been rented to Westerners in the last six months, and office space is suddenly at a premium. The best restaurant in town, Castelli’s, is fully booked every night. Ethiopian Airlines is operating at capacity on many of its routes.

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