WASHINGTON - As the world mobilizes to pour aid into war-wracked Iraq, contributions of food aid to nearly 40 million needy Africans are lagging dangerously, according to the head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), American James Morris.
In a statement to the UN Security Council this week, Morris said his agency was "deeply concerned" about the plight of Iraq's 27 million people, and has launched what may become the WFP's "largest single humanitarian operation in history," likely to cost $1.3 billion over six months.
But, said Morris, almost 40 million Africans, most of them women and children "(who) would find it an immeasurable blessing to have a month's worth of food," are currently in "greater peril" than Iraqis, but the WFP has only been able to raise $800 million out of an estimated $1.8 billion it needs to adequately cope with the crisis.
"As much as I don't like it, I cannot escape the thought that we have a double standard," he told the Security Council. "How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any other part of the world," he asked. "We simply cannot let this stand."
Morris, who was nominated to the WFP post last year by U.S. President George W. Bush, said that Africa's food crises result from a "lethal combination" of recurring droughts, failed economic policies, civil wars, and the widening impact of HIV/AIDS , which already has killed more than seven million African farmers and which debilitates millions more.
In spite of the unprecedented needs, global food aid has plummeted in recent years--falling by 50 percent since 1999 to less than 10 million metric tons last year. Moreover, food emergencies in North Korea and Afghanistan and future demand in Iraq all make it less likely that Africans will receive the food they need.
While short-term crop prospects have generally improved on the continent, the likelihood of more droughts and the impact of AIDS, particularly in Southern Africa, has created the real possibility of a "permanent, low-grade food crisis," that will hit women and girls--who account for 60 percent of AIDS cases in Africa--hardest. Because women also make up 80 percent of region's farmers, the impact on food production will be particularly dramatic, he added.
Nonetheless, Morris said there was some encouraging news, including an agreement between France and the United States to put the African food situation on the agenda of the summit meeting next month of the Group of Eight nations in Evian, France. Morris also commended Bush for creating a $200 million fund to prevent famine that could become seed money for a broader international initiative coming out of the G-8 Summit.
The G-8, which includes the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the European Union, should address seven key issues for African food needs, according to Morris, such as a substantial increase in investment in basic agricultural infrastructure (irrigation, roads, and markets) and helping devise ways to make agricultural work less burdensome for women.
More funds are also needed to work with African governments and regional association to improve agricultural early-warning and preparedness measures, particularly in areas with a high incidence of AIDS, and for major long-term investments in Africa's children, to help ensure their nutrition, education and health.
In particular, Morris called for an initial annual investment of $300 million in primary-school meal programs, to be gradually increased to $2 billion a year by 2015 in order to reach the estimated 40 to 50 million African children whose families' poverty prevents them from attending school.
Non-governmental organizations have called for similar measures, as well as others, including cancellation of most or all of the debt of poor African countries, much of whose revenue currently goes to repayment of debt to Western banks or international financial institutions rather than to health, education, and other social services designed to promote the welfare of their population.