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HUNGER IN AFRICA; Africa's urgent need

The drought, famine, and suffering in Africa that have aroused worldwide concern in recent months are wider, deeper, and more serious than the outside world imagines even now.

They require sustained, fundamental answers. Emergency aid is essential, but beyond it, Africa's real hunger is for new thinking, new freedom from old ways, new cooperation with donors, new research, new crops, new spirit, new confidence.

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Ever since African nations began to claim their independence two decades ago, perceptive analysts have warned that the end of the colonial era could be the beginning of a slide into shortage, poverty, and hunger.

For the first decade, many countries rode on the momentum of colonial era achievements. Today, all but a handful are staggering.

Food output per capita is falling, state-run agricultural marketing is inefficient, incentives to farmers are few. Basic farming is mostly done by women and lacks status. The world's fastest population growth swamps food and social gains.

Africa's urgent need for reforms began to emerge when severe drought hit the seven Western African countries of the Sahel and Ethiopian regions in 1973. Now a far worse drought has gripped the Sahel, spread eastward to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia, and reached south into Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

Yet only now is the scale of this latest calamity, and its underlying causes, beginning to be realized by Western governments and peoples.

About 1 million people will have died in the 12 months to Dec. 31 in Ethiopia alone, according to the latest accepted estimates in Addis Ababa.

The United States, Canada, and Europe have seen an outpouring of concern and aid by aroused populations. But the needs are greater than private donors can meet. Governments have begun to move in as well, yet the question of meeting long-term needs remains.

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Earlier in the year, alarm bells were rung by the Marxist-military government of Ethiopia and by Western diplomats in Kenya among others. But donors thought Addis Ababa was exaggerating. The government withdrew into an all-summer preoccupation with its 10th anniversary celebrations; Kenyan officials acknowledged the depth of their own drought privately, but still not in public; the US press paid little attention, and Europe and North America went on summer vacation not really aware of the magnitude of the need.

That has now changed, due largely to TV pictures.

But the crisis is not only the drought: It is also feudal practices; lack of private initiatives; inflexible state monopolies, artificially high exchange rates; unrealistically low food prices in the cities.

Asia and Latin America have had their Green Revolutions: a mix of new seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, and trained workers that transformed rice and wheat yields and turned food importers into nations able to feed themselves.

But Africa is the third-world exception. After covering the region for four years, author David Lamb writes in his book, ''The Africans'': ''. . . the continent is not catching up with the rest of the world, it is falling further behind. Africa is no longer part of the third world. It is the fourth world.''

It is a judgment widely shared by development and third-world analysts and officials. But Mr. Lamb also writes that Africa's dreams are not lost, ''only mislaid.''

And in Washington, World Bank president A. W. Clausen sees great potential, great untapped riches.

At the moment, however, basic research into nonirrigated African staples - sorghum, millet - is lacking. Growing conditions vary wildly. Droughts often recur. Populations skyrocket. Wars and civil wars block food shipments in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Chad. Africa stands today where Asia and Latin America stood in the '60s: needing to import large amounts of food to live.

This series, based on research in London, Brussels, Rome, Washington, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, and other African capitals and rural areas, looks at short- and long-term answers, against the background of facts like these:

* Experts differ on exact figures, but at a minimum, tens of millions of Africans are either hungry, starving, or suffering from malnutrition.

* Africa is the only region in the world where per capita food production has dropped over the past two decades - by 1 percent a year (the difference between a population rise of 3.5 percent a year and a food output rise lagging at 2.5 percent).

* At the time of independence in the early '60s, Africa was managing to produce almost 95 percent of its food. Today, every country except South Africa must import food.

* 17 African nationshad a negative economic growth rate in the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s, unless something dramatic happens, most Africans will be no better off than when their nations became independent in the '60s.

* Sub-Saharan Africa (including Sudan but excluding South Africa) now contains some 432 million people. All of Africa holds 536.7 million, a figure the United Nations sees zooming to 877.4 million in 16 years and to 1.6 billion in 40 years. By the year 2008, about 472 million - 44 percent of all Africa's people - will live in cities.

* Forty-seven percent of Africa as a whole is too dry for rainfed crops. Topsoils are thin. One-third of Africa is infested by the tsetse fly, which drives away humans and attacks livestock.

* The primary products Africans rely on for export earnings have dropped in price. Between 1969 and 1971, Africa provided half the world's groundnut (peanut) oil: It produces only half that today. It grew 70 percent of all groundnuts, but only 18 percent today. Its shares of world supplies of cocoa, coffee, tea, oilseeds, palm oil, sesame seeds, bananas, rubber, cotton, and sugar have all slid. Yet cash crops for export are irrigated and tended: Kenya has its worst drought for 50 years right now, but its highlands still supply Europe with lucrative strawberries and asparagus.

* Total African debt repayments will jump from $2.3 billion a year in 1980-82 to a World Bank-projected $8 billion a year in 1985-87. Capital flowing into Africa is set to stay steady at about $13 billion. It means African governments will have a lot less cash to spend, unless more is given.

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