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UN to focus on Africa

African nations hope to shine a new global spotlight on their need for famine and long-term economic help at an unprecedented special session of the United Nations General Assembly May 27-31. While African diplomats deny that the UN session constitutes a formal ``pledging session'' to produce new packages of aid money and know-how, it is clear that they hope such packages and projects will follow soon after.

Never before, African diplomats say, has the General Assembly devoted an entire special session to the economic needs of one region of the world. Africans pin great hopes on the headlines from the session to combat what they see as the West's ``compassion fatigue'' about the famine -- smaller headlines, fewer reports, less urgency in discussing emergency aid.

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These diplomats say they need more emergency aid, long-term projects for individual countries, and firm, well-designed ways and means to follow up aid projects and judge their worth.

The session comes from a desire by the Organization of African Unity to turn into solid fact a five-year development plan it adopted at its summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last year.

``Debts and finances won't be a central element,'' says one diplomat from Senegal, ``though of course we'll discuss them.

``We want to improve agriculture and food production, how to do better in population planning, education and health, how to build more roads . . . and how better to coordinate all the external help we're already getting.''

The session is being planned at a time when World Bank figures show long-term aid contributions to Africa (in real terms) falling in the next few years, and interest payments of external debt creating a reduction in the flow of aid available to be spent on development itself.

According to Salimatu Timbo from Sierra Leone, an official with the New York office of the Organization of African Unity: ``Africa is grateful for the aid already received -- but it is not just sitting back with its hand out.''

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