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UN aid to Africa shifts focus. Closing of emergency relief office sparks controversy over how to meet Africa's needs

The UN's effort to help Africa is in transition -- from emergency relief to recovery and development. This Friday will mark a major step in that transition: The office widely acclaimed for its coordination of famine relief worldwide closes its doors. For almost two years the UN Office for Emergency Operations in Africa (OEOA) has served as the central switchboard for famine relief efforts.

While Africa's worst famine of this century is by no means over, the drought has subsided and the number of people in danger of starvation has dropped dramatically: from 150 million in early 1985 to current estimates of 14 million.

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So, to show that the UN can keep the size of its bureaucracy in check, UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar is closing OEOA, which was designed from the start to be temporary. Money is also a factor. The UN is facing the most severe financial crisis of its 40 years, and de Cu'ellar is cutting back where he can.

Announced last spring, the decision to close OEOA remains a controversial one. Many UN and African officials and outside organizations feel the best way to address Africa's long-term needs is to keep the office open, but shift its focus -- from emergency operations to recovery and development, which, one official says, ``are all part of the same process.''

``Africa has been in a perpetual state of emergency,'' the official says, ``and it needs attention on a long-term basis.'' A number of African diplomats, he says, have expressed private concern that the closing of the office means the end of coordinated UN work in Africa.

Nonsense, senior UN officials respond. The UN's commitment to Africa has not diminished in the slightest, they say, citing the UN plan of action for Africa, drafted last May, as only the beginning of a new UN push for African development.

Indeed, the continent's challenges are daunting: Recent studies by the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warn that a combination of poor farming practices and soaring birth rates, if unchecked, could result in chronic famine in much of Africa by the end of this century.

OEOA's work will be taken over by UNrelief and development agencies, such as the UN Children's Fund and the UN Development Program. Many OEOA staffers are returning to the agencies from which they were ``borrowed'' when OEOA was set up, so their expertise will remain in the system.

Heading up a small team of people focusing specifically on the continuing emergency areas will be Charles Lamuniere, OEOA's departing executive coordinator. Mr. Lamuniere will work under the undersecretary-general for special political questions, a recognition by the UN that the four nations still on its ``critical list'' -- Mozambique, Angola, Sudan, and Ethiopia -- are still suffering from famine in large part for political reasons, i.e., civil war.

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Djibril Diallo, OEOA's chief of information, puts a hopeful cast on the closing of the office:

``If there were to be another emergency, God forbid, of this type in Africa or Asia or Latin America,'' he says, ``the UN would be better equipped to deal with it than before this office was created.'' Some of the lessons he cites are:

Need for early warning in drought prediction.

Coordination among all concerned -- UN agencies, donor countries, private voluntary organizations, and the governments of the afflicted nations -- is crucial.

Governments of afflicted nations must understand what is happening within their borders. In Africa, many governments were not aware of the extent of the emergency in isolated, drought-stricken areas.

The world's news media must be kept well-informed right from the start. With the African famine, most media outlets began to pay attention only when the situation was already out of hand.

The flow of information to the media must be reinforced by a network of information officers -- themselves former journalists -- located in disaster areas. They should brief journalists, suggesting story ideas.

It is crucial to set up early a system for getting reliable information to the central coordinating office, so that food and nonfood needs can be determined.

``We proved,'' Diallo says, ``that gathering reliable information and putting it at a central level where it is accessible to anybody is almost as vital as delivery of emergency assistance itself.''

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