Famine Fighter : El Toro Man Again Dives Into Thick of Helping Starving Africans

Times Staff Writer

Ethiopian famine stories are unwinding again, like awful replays from a bad tape reel.

It's a tape that Paul Thompson can play over and over in his head, even as he sits in the relative comfort of his home in a cul-de-sac in El Toro. As executive director of the World Vision Relief Organization, a subsidiary of World Vision--based in Monrovia in Los Angeles County--Thompson is in the business of famine relief.

And unfortunately, once again in Ethiopia, business is good.

"I probably came back with more of an emotional response on this trip than I have in a long time," said Thompson, 35, back in Orange County after 3 1/2 weeks in Africa--including his sixth trip to Ethiopia in recent years.

His concern, he said, is that there aren't any significant supplemental U.S. aid bills slated for Africa, as there were during the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine. "People are absolutely going to die because of a lack of resources. So, there's a source of despair on one hand, but a real determination on the other to make sure that we don't just throw our hands up in despair and say, 'We can only do this much.' "

Ethiopia needs 1.2-million metric tons of food, translating to about 100,000 metric tons a month, Thompson said. Given the obstacles in Ethiopia, both natural and man-made, that seems almost impossible, he added.

But the good news, he said, is that unlike 1984, the relief network is in place and is addressing problems much earlier. "Our early-warning systems have worked, both with the U.S. government and the humanitarian community. Things are much more stable at the present time than at this stage of the '84 crisis."

With five food centers targeted, World Vision is hoping to distribute food from them, rather than requiring people--sometimes tens of thousands--to trek long distances to line up for food at the centers, as they did in the last famine.

That is not to minimize the problem, Thompson said. "The biggest need is the famine in Ethiopia and Mozambique, where literally hundreds of thousands of people are on the edge of life. The American public is going to have a hard time responding like they did in '84 to '86, but unless they do, it's going to be as large or larger in terms of the disaster."

An estimated 700,000 to 1 million people died during that famine. Thompson's latest trip showed some of the same trouble signs, including drought in Ethiopia in 1987, with total crop failure in some places.

However, he added, community development programs ranging from reforestation to water projects have pumped some vitality back into the country.

World Vision wasn't exempted from the round of stories about aid that didn't reach its destination during the last famine. The organization's final report on its effort showed that, for varied reasons, 4.5% of the 100,000 tons of food it distributed didn't reach its destination, Thompson said.

Married and the father of three young children, Thompson has headed World Vision's relief component only since last summer, the latest job in a nine-year career with the non-denominational Christian organization.

Back in the relative ease of life in Orange County (except for his 55-mile one-way drive to World Vision headquarters each day), Thompson going through the "decompression process" that accompanies every return from the Third World.

"Some people wonder, 'Is there guilt? How can you live in such comparative luxury?' But you cannot be rendered helpless. If you really deal with that, you could probably pick up stakes and move over and live with the people. . . . But I see my task as doing the best I can and not getting discouraged. There was a point in my life where I had to deal with that, and the way I handle it is to not feel guilty about the way I live."

Born in Michigan and the son of a minister, Thompson moved to California in 1974, where he opened a treatment center for delinquent children in San Diego. He joined World Vision in 1978 after doing graduate study and becoming disenchanted with how other nonprofit organizations, particularly Christian agencies, spent their money.

At a Baptist college in St. Paul, Minn., he majored in sociology and political science and then studied business management at the postgraduate level. His religious faith is a driving force in his work, Thompson said:

"My belief in God is one of the things that allows me to maintain presence of mind. I know that if you look at the global picture, it's easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. But if you look at the help provided one person. . . . How do you help the needs of a hurting world? One at a time."

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