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Paradox of Humanitarian Assistance : When Food Is a Weapon, Those in Need Will Starve

<i> Peter J. Davies is the president and chief executive officer of InterAction</i>

A moral question: How can children, women and men be allowed to starve, as in the Sudan today, when food is available in the country and there is no drought? The answer is sovereignty. Food is being used as a weapon by both sides in a devastating civil war.

Photographs of emaciated people lead many to conclude that the cause of death-dealing hunger is a lack of food. The real culprit is the warfare raging between the government of the Sudan and the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the southern region over political, economic, cultural and especially religious differences.

The relief agencies--especially American, French, British, Irish, Canadian and Scandinavian--have known for months that the situation was desperate and that thousands of children were dying. They have been pressing the Sudanese authorities and the SPLA to allow them to get food, medicines and shelter to the displaced who are fleeing the war zone. In fact, as far back as October, 1986, the U.S. State Department wrote a group of American church-based relief agencies: “As soon as security permits, we are willing to cooperate with all neutral, competent relief organizations that can ensure our aid will not be used to support combatants.”

I have just returned from the Sudan, where I met with Sudanese and international relief-agency representatives. The answer to my questions was always the same. The Sudan government and the SPLA will not let us distribute food in their areas, ostensibly for security reasons. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” they say.

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Only after thousands died and Sudanese officials, along with U.N. and U.S. government teams, visited the border towns did relief agencies receive permission to ship limited supplies of food and medicines to the starving. Estimates are that as many as 100,000, mostly children below 5 years old, have already died.

What, then, are the constraints on the United Nations, the U.S. and other governments and the private voluntary-relief agencies that inhibit them from taking the necessary steps, in concert with Sudanese authorities, to prevent this tragedy?

The roots of the conflict go deep. Since a 17-year civil war, which ended in 1972, was reignited in 1983, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese have been killed, more than half of the southern population displaced. Major human-rights abuses by both sides have taken their toll. More than a million people are at risk of starvation.

The tragedy illustrates the paradox of much of today’s humanitarian assistance--whether in the southern Sudan, northern Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or Mozambique. Conflicts that produce suffering isolate those in need from those rendering assistance. Withholding food or channeling it to those considered friends have become strategies in the conflicts themselves. When humanitarian imperatives are compromised by political considerations, the human consequences are staggering. Each side claims that food will benefit the other’s soldiers rather than civilians.

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Furthermore, as in other conflict settings, providing aid in the Sudan has become risky, with losses of personnel, supplies and vehicles. Private agencies, which seek to provide aid without political, geographical, religious or other bias--that is, to be impartial--are experiencing difficulty in gaining access to the hungry on one or both sides.

Most needed today is an end to the destructive war. Without peace, the reconstruction--not to say development--of the southern Sudan will remain an impossible dream. The Horn of Africa may be where, among all the world’s conflict settings, the most people starve.

With a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War in place, the time is ripe to focus on the Horn of Africa. We must encourage and build on the Sudanese government and SPLA leaders’ efforts, as fragile as they are, to meet. (A meeting between Prime Minister Sadek Mahdi and John Garang, the rebel army’s leader, scheduled to take place in Uganda, has again been postponed.)

While the lives of people will not be secure until the warfare ceases, there is a desperate need in the interim for stepped-up aid. (The U.S. government commitment of $1.5 million is welcome, though modest.) And voluntary agencies are attempting to get food and medicine to the starving despite enormous obstacles imposed by local officials.

A number of private U.S. agencies--many of them members of InterAction, a coalition of private U.S. voluntary humanitarian and development agencies--are exploring how to provide additional assistance even before the conflict ends. About 50 groups have formed the Coalition for Peace in the Horn of Africa, which is calling on the U.S. government to end the supply of arms to the region, promote a cease-fire in the Sudan and assist civilians caught in the cross-fire.

Action on many fronts will be needed before starvation is halted. The moral challenge to the international community is to help bring the violence to an end and assist in the reconstruction and development of a region that has known more than its share of tragedy. The terrible suffering of innocent children, women and men must stop. Let us not rest until the challenge has been met.


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