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Africa: crisis persists as aid falls. UN combats donor apathy and seeks more long-term aid

It's almost as if Africa needs a Madison Avenue advertising firm to step in and offer free services. The famine has subsided. The ``loud'' emergency is over. Africa has all but vanished from the front pages of the nation's newspapers and the screens of its televisions. And many people have responded by closing their check books.

But the fact is the emergency persists in certain areas. Fourteen million Africans are still in danger of starving. And Africa has just embarked on an ambitious five-year development plan that counts on $46 billion from international donors.

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If some Madison Avenue ad firm were to enter at this point, its task would be to convince the people of the developed world that Africa needs even more money for long-term recovery than it did for the famine.

In general, the funding trends are alarming. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has just scaled back its emergency operations because only $11.7 million of a $102 million emergency appeal launched April 1 has been raised. Last year, an appeal for $120 million brought in $109 million.

The Save the Children Federation has raised only $20,000 for Africa since the agency's fiscal year began July 1. In the previous fiscal year $2 million was raised.

A World Bank affiliate that lends to the world's poorest countries reports a higher level of funds than expected - $12.2 billion. But the World Bank itself projects a $2.5 billion annual shortfall in interest-free loans and grants to Africa over the next five years.

``With or without famine, 5 million children die in Africa every year from disease and malnutrition,'' says Kristina Schellinski of UNICEF. ``Now we're back to the situation of before October 1984 [when the famine became a big story]. Awareness has dropped away.''

Other development officials are more hopeful. The massive response to the famine awakened the public to Africa. Maurice Strong, who headed the UN's African emergency office, says, ``If people see that something works, they're willing to give money.''

Africa now has its biggest opportunity yet to show that it can make something work - namely, a sweeping five-year recovery plan for Africa drafted in May at a special session of the UN General Assembly. The UN and the individual African nations are just beginning to put into place the mechanisms to carry out the plan, which calls for greater emphasis on agriculture and the private sector.

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One criticism of the May special session is that it did not produce a firm financial commitment from the developed countries. The Africans themselves are to provide $82 billion of the $128 billion the recovery plan calls for; the rest of the money is to come from outside donors. UN officials concede this is the plan's weakest part.

``If the West pushes for reform, then doesn't back it with money, it will be suicide for Africa,'' says Sasha Bacic, a special adviser on Africa at UNICEF. Economic reform will involve some politically risky moves, such as reducing or eliminating subsidies on consumer goods. Governments will need to be able to show the powerful urban classes some reward - e.g., Western-funded economic development - to justify increased consumer prices.

Many UN veterans are impressed by the commitment African leaders, conscious of close scrutiny, are showing to get the recovery plan going.

``We are not beggars,'' says Amara Essy, the Ivory Coast's ambassador to the UN. ``We have to show that we are working. Then it is the duty of the [African] governments to find what aid will resolve their problems.''

Ambassador Essy says that it is not only money the Africans need: They need better terms of trade, debt relief, and stabilized commodity prices (for items such as coffee and cocoa). Help in finding water is also tremendously useful - much more useful than lots of corn. Africa's goal, says Essy, is self-sufficiency. ``The President of my country says, `Good aid is aid that helps you do without aid.'''

But for now, the key is still just to get enough aid. For donor governments to provide Africa with the support it needs, the public political will of the donor nations needs to be demonstrated - as it was during the height of the famine. Mr. Strong warns that otherwise, ``Africa could become a great global slum.''

As coordinator for the African plan, the UN has targeted five tasks:

Seeing that Africa's recovery program is on the agenda at all relevant international conferences.

Organizing regular consultations among pertinent development agencies.

Monitoring each country's progress.


Informing the public on any progress.

As the Secretary-General's special adviser on the plan for Africa, Canadian UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis will spend a lot of time keeping donor governments informed of progress and urging them to do more. And the UN expects to enlist more ambassadors to lobby key decisionmakers to allocate more aid to Africa.

The UN is also trying to build a constituency for Africa in the public at large. Last month in Atlanta, Djibril Diallo, a UN spokesman for African development, launched a series of conferences in major US cities to promote awareness of how Americans and Africans can help each other through cultural and educational exchanges as well as private investment. Africa is ripe with investment potential, and its 460 million consumers are a market waiting to be tapped.

Development officials warn of the danger of judging the UN plan too soon. The task of transforming an entire continent seems overwhelming, even among Africa's most inspired civil servants.

``Sometimes, at the end of the day, you are tired not from activity, but because you are a poor man looking at all these problems,'' says Pierre-Claver Damiba, secretary of the plan's steering committee. ``All you can do is hope that the humble initiatives might bring progress somewhere that might help a few families.

Sometimes, at the end of the day, all you can do is pray.''

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