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UPDATE/The African famine

A monitoring system introduced in northeastern Uganda in 1981 has helped save that region from the worst effects of a potentially catastrophic famine, United Nations officials say. The program keys food distribution to periodic weight and height measurements of children under the age of five. Growth charts are kept and if children show a downturn they get supplementary rations.

``It's an alarm bell that makes it possible to recognize malnutrition before it's too late,'' says a spokesman for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

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UNICEF officials say the project, has provided an effective way of allocating scarce food resources. More important, they say it's saved thousands of children.

Problems: Logistics -- getting food and supplies where they're needed most -- is still the biggest problem, relief officials say:

One problem is civil strife in countries like Mozambique and Ethiopia. Another is a truck shortage. Parts and maintenance are scarce. Still another is the basic ``infrastructure'' problem: transportation networks in the hardest hit areas are underdeveloped. Chad, where famine conditions have been severe, has only 100 miles of paved roads. Sudan has only 3,000 miles of railroad and recent rains have washed out track and bridges.

The World Bank and other international lenders are helping rehabilitate Sudan's rail network. In the meantime, the European Community is sponsoring supply flights to Darfur province. Planes bring in 160,000 metric tons of food and supplies a day. But that's not enough.

Worries: Seasoned relief workers warn of the danger of trying to solve Africa's problems too fast and without enough sensitivity to local circumstances.

A problem often results when too much money is combined with too little experience, says David Negus, who has spent three years in Africa for the American Friends Service Committee.

``Relief workers have enthusiasm and good intentions -- and a lot of power because they have the money to make changes. But if they're not careful, they can do more harm than good,'' he says.

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One example: the pressures of having to spend large amounts of money quickly invites mismanagement, too much attention to achieving short-term results.

Another worry: Relief workers spend too much time in the capitals and not enough in the field. The result: too much aid ends up in the hands of local elites, creating a wider gap than ever.

Yet another: Mismatching problems and solutions. At Dire, in Mali, USAID installed diesel pumps for an irrigation project. But for the project to survive it was necessary to create a whole infrastructure of parts and personnel to maintain it. Instead of relying on indigenous and traditional structures, says Negus, relief workers ended up creating new structures and new forms of dependence. This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays


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