African Hunger Threatens World Peace, Security

NEW YORK, New York, December 5, 2002 (ENS) - One hundred metric tons of high energy biscuits have been contributed by Norway to feed Ethiopia's malnourished children, pregnant and nursing women, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced today. The biscuits are the first response to a worldwide appeal to supply food for millions of hungry people across Africa. UNICEF will distribute the biscuits in hopes of staving off unprecedented level of starvation.

“The Norwegian donation is the first major commitment from the international donor community in advance of our consolidated appeal,” said UNICEF representative Ibrahim Jabr, who hopes that "we can avert a major humanitarian crisis in the coming year.”

With some 40 million people at risk of starvation on the continent, Africa is facing an immense hunger crisis that threatens peace and security, the UN Security Council was told Tuesday.


James Morris touring southern Africa in September (Photo © WFP/B. Barton)
James Morris, executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), told representatives of the Security Council's 15 member nations that the famine and mass starvation now facing Africa "is an unprecedented crisis which calls for an unprecedented response. An exceptional effort is urgently needed if a major catastrophe is to be averted. Business as usual will not do."

"The severity of the current food crises is certainly on a scale that threatens political stability and security," Morris said. "In southern Africa - Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique - over 14 million people need food aid, with the most critical period beginning now through March 2003."

Briefing the Security Council Tuesday, Morris said about 60 percent of the organization’s work takes place in Africa. This year's WFP budget for Africa is about $1.4 billion, of which about half has been raised.

The amount of food aid had decreased by 25 percent this year, and 60 percent of that food aid came from the United States, Morris said.

Difficult weather conditions, floods and drought are only part of the reason for the food crisis, Morris said. Collapsing economic systems, especially in Zimbabwe; political and ethnic violence in Sudan, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and the HIV/AIDS epidemic are all contributing to the multiple crises, he said.

AIDS has killed millions of young men and women in Africa, and the disease is now making it "intolerably difficult" for some countries in the southern part of the continent to resist famine, UN officials said on World AIDS Day December 1.


In Beira, Mozambique, Morris watched the bagging of white maize from South Africa. (Photo courtesy © WFP/B. Barton)
Reacting to Morris' comments, speakers addressing the Security Council stressed the need for efforts by the international community to address the crisis, since there is a strong link between security and food security.

U.S. Ambassador Richard Williamson, the U.S. alternative representative to the United Nations, placed much of the blame for famine on policies of the affected governments. He said United States food aid would have to be reduced this year, because of drought at home and other domestic factors, and he urged other donors to help in the coming food crises in Africa.

Williamson expressed concern that controversies over biotechnology could prevent timely distribution of maize (corn). Whole kernel biotech maize had not been shown to pose a threat to the food supply, he said.

"We do not believe there are food safety problems with biotech food," the ambassador said. "The whole kernel maize being provided by the United States Government as part of our relief assistance is the same that is being eaten by millions of Americans daily. It is safe, wholesome, and can make the difference between life and death for millions of southern Africans."

On Tuesday the U.S. government issued a Fact Sheet on the Safety of Bio-Engineered Crops in U.S. Food Aid that was meant to reassure starving countries that these foods are safe to eat. "The bio-engineered crops that are planted by U.S. farmers, including maize and soybeans, have been rigorously reviewed for environmental and food safety by all relevant U.S. regulatory agencies," the fact sheet states. "These assessments were conducted to evaluate food safety for the multi-ethnic U.S. population, and the United States is not aware of any reason to suggest that these foods would be unsafe for populations in other countries."


Matabeleland South Province, Zimbabwe, September 2002. Beneficiaries queue in Nhwali village to be registered for one month’s ration of maize meal, vegetable oil and beans. (Photo © WFP/B. Barton)
In particular, Zimbabwe’s restrictions on the import of such corn could worsen a situation already made bad by other misguided government policies, Williamson said. Food should not be used as a weapon, he said, and he urged the Security Council to prevent such an occurrence in southern Africa.

Morris called Zimbabwe's land distribution and ownership scheme "damaging," saying that thousands of productive farms are not operating and that restrictions on private sector food marketing and a monopoly on food imports by the government's Grain Marketing Board "are turning a drought that might have been managed into a humanitarian nightmare."

Commodity shortages, high market prices and accelerating inflation, he said, "are a formula for disaster" in Zimbabwe.

Evgeny Stanislavov of the Russian Federation said the current situation requires "an immediate reaction" by the international community. His country continues to provide humanitarian assistance to African countries and is considering the provision of assistance through the WFP, he said.

Many speakers expressed concern that vital food aid is not reaching those who need it the most. Morris responded that the WFP has "elaborate systems in place" to monitor whether or not food aid was getting to those who needed it the most, and also coordinates with other agencies.

Reiterating the magnitude of the food crisis, Morris said WFP’s focus is on keeping people alive through food assistance. He said that in the six southern African countries he is most focused on, the support from donors for critical non-food areas is less than 25 percent, and opportunities have been missed to avoid further crises. He urged donors to provide resources for seeds and fertilizer to begin planning for the future.


Mieso, West Hararghe, Ethiopia. The drought has caused many livestock deaths; the remaining animals barely surviving. (Photo © WFP/Wagdi Othman)
Morris said the second area of concern is the greater Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and the Sudan. The region had no spring rains, and the fall rains arrived late, resulting in a crop which was the equivalent of only 20 percent of last year’s.

“Donor contributions have covered the most acute needs over recent months, but by early next year the number of drought affected Ethiopians will rise dramatically – the food aid pledges received so far are nowhere near enough,” said Georgia Shaver, WFP representative in Ethiopia.

In the worst case scenario, up to 14 million people will require some two million tons of food aid, costing $700 million. “If donors respond quickly, we can still help avoid immense human suffering in Ethiopia,” she said.