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Feeding Africa's hungry - now and later

Yet another major challenge has been presented to the US and the rest of the developed world: Act to prevent starvation this year in 24 African nations. A new report by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization says these developing countries - again beleaguered by drought, pestilence, and strife - will require donations from other nations in 1984 of 1.6 million tons of food and about $100 million in agricultural assistance. Since September the world has tripled its food gifts, yet much more is needed.

For the US and other potential donors, much of the challenge is that they also must struggle to meet their own major needs. Unemployment is one problem. Then, too, Europe is recovering very slowly from the latest recession; whereas the US recovery has been robust, much concern exists about the long-range impact of Washington's $200 billion annual deficit. Frosty relations with the Soviet Union, and internal pressures for nuclear-arms control occupy considerable attention in the West.

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Domestic hunger is an issue in the US. There is disagreement over its extent nationally, although episodic reports indicate the existence of sizable numbers of hungry people in many communities.

In addition, reports circulate that Kampuchea, the former Cambodia, this year faces a shortage of 200,000 to 300,000 tons of rice - its staple diet item - according to its government. A few years ago Kampucheans were confronted by the prospect of massive hunger, which was alleviated by a worldwide outpouring of food.

In the late 1960s and 1970s the world showed similar humanity in providing immense amounts of food to African nations south of the Sahara to meet a previous food shortage stemming from drought. Today, for all their other priorities, the US and other developed nations of West and East - particularly those with substantial farm surpluses - again ought to rally to the need and provide food to Africa's hungry nations.

It is important that this food be provided through distribution channels that will enable it to reach the hungry. Too often in the past that has not happened. Some money intended to buy food has been siphoned off by corrupt officials. Too often food never reached those who needed it, either because it was stolen and sold on the black market or because the distribution system was inadequate to get it into the countryside.

Once the short-range requirements are met, longer-range problems should be addressed. Some can be met in large part by other nations: donating seed for next year's crop, teaching better agricultural methods, providing increased loans.

Others can be dealt with only by the struggling nations themselves, such as ending recurrent civil strife or official corruption and building a stable, honest, and efficient government where one does not now exist.

Some problems require joint action. One is the necessity of finding a way to diversify African economies, the bulk of which - like those of most developing nations - depend too heavily on one commodity. When its export prices are down, as happened with exports of most African nations during the recent worldwide recession, the country then has less money than expected for solving its economic and social problems.

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Each situation requires a reponse. First, there is hunger. It is a world problem. But the US can be expected to play a major role in alleviating it, given America's long record of generosity and humanitarianism.

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