Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

To Feed 2.6 Million People Takes Skill in the Field, PR Back Home

Relief Aid For Sudan's Starving

Charles Inwani, an aid worker from Kenya, barrels around a field in a mud-encrusted jeep, chasing off people slowly making their way through the tall grass.

The sky over this field is about to rain food - 32 tons of it - and he has to make sure no one gets caught in the downpour.

About these ads

Soon a C-130 cargo plane rumbles overhead and, like manna, more than 1,000 bags of food staples fall onto the wilderness of Ajiep, one of the most desperate areas in a country where 2.6 million face starvation. The food delivery is courtesy of the UN World Food Program (WFP), Mr. Inwani's employer.

But the pilot misses the drop zone, and a hundred men designated as porters - their limbs almost as thin as those of the others - drag the heavy sacks into piles. Watchmen with spears keep would-be looters at bay. Thousands of hungry people wait for a small share of the maize and sorghum.

Feeding hungry multitudes has never been easy. In the global effort to feed thousands of starving Sudanese, the effort is especially difficult.

Although Sudan is enmeshed in a 15-year-old civil war, the only fight most southern Sudanese are concerned with is the battle for survival.

For foreign relief workers, the fight is not just how to deliver food, but also how to win the world's attention to get enough money and support to stop a famine.

Too often, famine relief starts only when images of dying babies show up on Western televisions. "You have to see it to believe it, unfortunately," says Jason Matus, a food economist for WFP, noting that early-warning systems designed to detect a famine don't bring sufficient international response.

"That's a sad statement for prevention.... Everyone has said since last September that things would be bad in Sudan, but the situation had to be visible for people to move."

About these ads

Many critics say international donors could have acted sooner. But that would have taken massive mobilization of food before horrific pictures of starving people entered the world's consciousness.

A day in Ajiep shows how complicated it will be to put southern Sudan - a relatively fertile region with the potential to sustain its own people - on the road to recovery.

Throughout the afternoon a swirling multitude of gaunt women wait in line outside the supplementary feeding center for the rations they are supposed to receive every other day. Mothers are encouraged to feed themselves and their children on the spot. In many cases, when women bring the food home it is shared with generally healthier male family members, and those most in danger of succumbing to starvation don't get enough.

Even with a goal of sending in 11,000 tons of food to south Sudan per month, there is not enough food reaching the people who need it. WFP estimates that only half the people here in Bahr al-Ghazal province, the area where the famine is most wrenching, are getting food aid.

Then there's the problem of rebels in Sudan's civil war using the aid food. WFP officials say that about 10 percent of every food delivery is skimmed and given to guerrillas.

Faith and seeds

At a cemetery in Ajiep, another child has just been buried. Nearby, people join in a prayer for better times. But many farmers and herdsmen have lost faith. Those with seeds had to eat them, leaving little for next year's planting. The once-brisk trade in cattle and food between the Dinka in Bahr al-Ghazal and Arab provinces to the north has also come to a virtual halt, since those with anything left to sell would have to cross enemy lines.

Relief workers say that, even if they could succeed in getting people to return to their fields, harvests would have to be especially bountiful for hunger to lessen.

Many aid agencies hope to set up more food-distribution centers as a way to ease overcrowding. But persuading people to move on to another place - much less take the risk of returning to their homes - will be a formidable task.

Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, says that 60 percent of the areas in which its staff is operating is currently inaccessible by plane. Sending food in by convoy is almost impossible, even in the dry season.

In Ajiep, the epicenter of the Sudan famine where up to 25,000 people clamor for food each day, MSF is the only aid group feeding people.

Other international aid organizations want to work in Ajiep, but, so far, MSF has persuaded the UN-sponsored Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) - an umbrella group overseeing aid agencies - that it can handle the job alone.

But now, with so many people still hungry, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA) - the humanitarian wing of the main rebel group fighting Sudan's Islamic government - is questioning that limitation. "We have all these aid workers here, food is coming in, and people are still dying," says Menashe Mac, a senior SRRA official. Other aid groups, such as UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund have also been critical.

WFP does deliver bulk quantities of food to Ajiep but MSF gives out daily rations to those most in danger of perishing from hunger: women and children.

The politics of getting donations

Political and relief agency sources say MSF has tried to keep everyone else out because it wants to show that it's running the show in Ajiep in order to get money from donors.

The allegation, whether true or not, is a window into the increasingly competitive world of food aid and raises questions about whether the necessity of raising money for expensive relief efforts translates into helping fewer people in need than could be helped.

MSF officials don't deny that MSF prefers to be the only one running feeding centers in Ajiep. But adding another agency, they say, would just draw more people to an already overcrowded area and make matters worse.

Moreover, says Alex Parisel, the general director of MSF Belgium, the presence of another group would mean that MSF would have to compete with it for "manpower in the field," ground supplies like fuel, and limited space on airplanes to Ajiep.

"If you bring in another NGO [nongovernmental organization], we want it to be in an area that deals with nonfood items like blankets and that doesn't do the same feeding program as we do," says Mr. Parisel, interviewed at MSF's logistical headquarters in the northern Kenyan town of Lokichokio.

"We know perfectly well that we're not covering the needs of everyone. We're covering maybe 30 percent. What we are saying is that we need to open other sites where there are airstrips, to draw people away from Ajiep."

"These guys don't want another agency going there," says George Cooke, program coordinator for UNICEF, the UN agency that oversees all aid to south Sudan. "They don't want someone to do it better because they want to show they're in charge and they know how to organize it."

Mr. Cooke says MSF means well. But concerns about its finances and its image as a leader in famine relief do come into play in a world of aid-agency rivalries. MSF raises its own money, a lot of money," Cooke says. "Funding is No. 1. When you have the money, you have the power. And this is a very expensive operation."

Last month MSF received the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize for "extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering" - and announced a major portion of the $1 million award would go toward expanding its work in southern Sudan.

On the ground, MSF's employees look haggard. Conditions are extreme, and every two to three days a staff member has to be evacuated to Kenya.

MSF field workers trying to keep up with the Ajiep disaster say bringing people back from the brink of starvation takes time.

"A family like that," says MSF nutritionist Mary Jo Michelet, pointing to one more group of stick-thin people who have come to collect their ration, "will not be better in one day."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.