U.S. Aid Response--What Took So Long? : Rwanda: Crisis was forecast last fall, yet we were caught so short, we had to raid other countries’ assistance programs.

<i> Richard M. Walden is president of Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based international disaster relief and development agency. </i>

The most disturbing document to circulate in Washington since the Rwanda crisis began in April is the July 13 situation report from the Agency for International Development’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

The report purports to outline in detail a generous and immediate U.S. government response to what is now the world’s most critical humanitarian disaster.

Claiming $69 million in aid between April and July, the government expected kudos. What it is getting privately, however, are expressions of exasperation by U.N. and private relief agencies as well as from other African countries whose vitally needed emergency food allotments have been diverted to the Rwanda region.

Very little new money and hardly any new commodities are being brought to bear on a disaster whose grim statistics now include 1 1/2 million refugees at the Zaire-Rwanda border, 400,000 refugees at the Tanzania-Rwanda border, tens of thousands more fleeing Rwanda to Burundi and an estimated 2 1/2 million displaced inside Rwanda, a country whose pre-war population was 9 million.


A favorite bureaucratic tactic when responding to a disaster overseas is to rob Peter to pay Paul. A claimed $40-million worth of U.S. food aid for Rwandans was diverted from such places in need as Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. The World Food Program will have to replace these commodities, but shipping lanes are long and delays of many months are sure to follow.

There is also the matter of AID’s disaster assessment and response team taking two months to get fully operational in the region. Yet the Rwanda tragedy was foreseen last September, when Burundi’s first Hutu president was assassinated, along with several members of his cabinet, and a 50,000- to 100,000-person massacre ensued. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees warned that 600,000 people were fleeing into neighboring Rwanda.

While the United Nations was trying to prepare for such an eventuality, the United States was proclaiming that Burundi was a clear-cut case of something well outside America’s national interest. Since the United States provides more than 30% of the U.N. refugee agency’s budget, there was a limit to the advance planning the agency was capable of implementing.

Now, the worst has happened. Burundi’s mirror image--Rwanda--blew sky high on April 6 when the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi--both of them Hutu--were assassinated. What followed was most likely a pre-planned massacre of up to 500,000 Tutsis by Hutu military and militias. Where was AID’s (or any other government agency’s, for that matter) early warning system? Why did coordinating a U.S. response take more than three months? Why is it so paltry?


The outcry from the humanitarian agencies is plaintive this time because the news stories convey little hope. So there has been a pathetic private response to appeals by relief agencies for money and materiel, and the many agencies wishing to respond have been made even more dependent on U.S. government support than they normally are after a disaster.

It is indeed ironic that the Federal Emergency Management Administration, our quick-response agency for domestic disasters, now has a “can-do” reputation under the strong leadership of James Lee Witt and the confidence of his longtime patron, Bill Clinton, while the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is slowly but surely losing stature as America’s humanitarian face abroad. Partly this is due to money (there is little available, always too little for Africa), politics (spheres of influence, aversion to foreign aid) and cynicism (“What, again?”).

But mostly it involves a need to break out of bureaucratic molds and put victims first rather than last in the aid equation. AID, in this ever-so-important instance, has not done that.