WARS, NATURAL DISASTERS AND FAMINE THREATEN MILLIONS AROUND THE WORLD
WARS, NATURAL DISASTERS AND FAMINE THREATEN MILLIONS AROUND THE WORLD
In Bangladesh, a cyclone kills at least 125,000 people and leaves millions more prey to starvation and plague. In the Middle East, civil war drives an estimated 1.5 million Kurds from their homes, causing countless thousands to die of hunger, cold and sickness. In South America, a cholera epidemic claims at least 1,300 lives before waning with the onset of the southern winter. And beyond those disasters looms the spectre of mass famine in Africa which, relief experts say, could kill between 20 and 30 million people. Taken together, the underdeveloped world currently presents a picture of natural and man-assisted catastrophe rarely equalled in the 20th century. But in the recession-plagued industrialized countries, that catalogue of Third World miseries arouses conflicting emotions. Although there is an unmistakable urge to help, Canadians and other relatively affluent Westerners face counterclaims for sympathy from their own countries’ hungry and homeless. And that, combined with a pervading sense that the Third World’s problems are insoluble, creates what international relief workers call “compassion fatigue.”
The Kurdish tragedy, even allowing for the belated U.S. reaction to it, has attracted the greatest Western response because it was a consequence of the Western-led war to liberate Kuwait (page 38). Last weekend, international pop music stars in nine Western cities performed free to raise money for the Kurds. But there were no concerts for Bangladesh. That desperately impoverished nation’s latest disaster arouses concern, but also impatience because the cyclone’s effects were clearly compounded by the failure of the Bangladeshi government to organize effective precautions (page 42). And many relief agencies are openly pessimistic about the likely Western response to the famine disaster now brewing in the Sudan and Ethiopia. Western nations gave massively to defeat famine in those two countries six years ago, only to see it recur. As a result, says Harry Black, executive director of the United Nations relief agency UNICEF Canada: “Africa is the ignored disaster. People felt that it should have gone away after 1985.”
Threat: In fact, aid officials say that if more effort had been put into long-range development, the threat of African famine might indeed have gone away—or at least receded. Asked Bruce Moore, executive director of the Canadian Hunger Foundation: “Can we keep responding to all these emergencies? When will we address the larger agenda?” Or, as UNICEF’s Black put it: “We’re a development agency first, with an emergency capacity. But you can’t ‘develop’ children who are dead.”
So far, world governments, non-governmental relief agencies and other international organizations have donated a total of $236 million for Kurdish relief, $18.6 million of which came from the Canadian government. The Bangladeshi government appealed last week for $1.6 billion. Officials said that they have so far received pledges of about $234 million, $115 million of which came from Saudi Arabia. Canada’s official donation was $2 million.
Meanwhile, in eastern Africa, attempts to cope with famine are complicated by civil war. The Ethiopian Marxist regime is battling Eritrean nationalists and pro-democracy rebels, while the Sudan’s Moslem fundamentalist regime is fighting a savage war against predominantly Christian rebels. And in both countries, international relief workers have accused the regimes of obstructing their attempts to send aid to rebel-held areas. In the Sudan alone, reports the U.S. Agency for International Development, one million tons of food are needed immediately to avert the starvation of nine million people. According to AID, another six million people are in danger of starvation in Ethiopia. The UN has appealed for $949 million to help the Sudan. But raising that amount may prove difficult. Said Nikola Mihajlovic, spokesman for the Canadian branch of the UN High Commission for Refugees: “The [African] famine in the mid-’ 80s grabbed attention because it was new to most people. But now, with so many disasters in such a compressed time, it’s just another crisis.” Agreed René de Grace, nation-
famine-stricken Sudanese 'compassion fatigue'
al director of the Canadian Red Cross Society: “It’s not a priority with Canadians right now.”
In Europe, too, relief workers say that the Sudan and Ethiopia constitute the area most prone to the effects of compassion fatigue. “On a scale of magnitude,” said Luc Trouillard, spokesman for the French branch of the international Catholic charity CARITAS, “the east African famine beats all the others combined, but we are receiving next to nothing for its victims.” He added that for every 100 francs donated in France for relief last week, 89 went to Bangladesh, 10 went to the Kurds and only one went to Africa.
The perception that some Third World governments are not doing their best to help may also discourage potential Western donors. Last
week, Bangladesh desperately needed more helicopters to distribute the food aid that was flowing in. The country’s armed forces have only 30 helicopters of their own, and fewer than half are operational. But neighboring India, which has more than 500 military helicopters, had sent only six. And according to an official Bangladeshi spokesman in Ottawa, Pakistan had sent only two of its 145 military helicopters.
Meanwhile, in Kurdistan, private aid efforts were obstructed by overzealous Iranian officials—even though the fundamentalist Tehran government had complained that Western relief was inadequate for the massive influx of Iraqi Kurds into Iran. The U.S. charity Americares withdrew a seven-member medical team, abandoning a $575,000 clinic and $2.2 million worth of medicines and food after Iranian
officials accused them of spying. And a 30member medical team from the French organization Doctors of the World left another Kurdish refugee camp for similar reasons. Last month, the U.S. government sent an air force jet to Tehran with secondhand clothes and blankets for the refugees. But the Iranians refused to accept the cargo, claiming that it was infected with the AIDS virus. Said a Bush administration official anonymously last week: “I wouldn’t hold my breath for another flight.”
Such outright obstructionism as Iran’s is rare. But Third World failure to prepare for predictable disasters is clearly not. François Arsenault, director of international humanitarian assistance for the Canadian International Development Agency, warned last week that Canadian generosity “cannot be perceived as a bottomless pit.” He stressed the need for Third World countries to make better use of development programs. In particular, he said, “disaster-prone countries must more and more look to disaster-preparedness programs.” That was apparently a reference to Bangladesh, where although cyclones are common, successive governments have failed to introduce a proper warning system.
Disasters: Obviously, cyclones cannot be prevented, adequate rainfall cannot be assured and oppressive governments cannot constantly be removed by outside intervention. But poor environmental policies, which contribute to such Third World disasters as flooding and crop failure due to drought, can be corrected. For one, conservationists say that the deforestation of the lower slopes of the Himalayas has added greatly to the flow of water over low-lying Bangladesh. As well, population increases, deforestation and overgrazing have accelerated the pace at which once-arable land is reverting to desert in Africa.
Still, statistics indicate that over the long term, the Third World’s problems are not insoluble. “Let’s put things in perspective,” said UNICEF’s Black. “Apart from Africa, most countries are reporting progress instead of impending disaster.” And in another indication of progress, AID headquarters in Washington reported last Friday that infant mortality rates in Third World countries had been cut by ten per cent in the past five years.
Clearly, persistence pays. And although continued Western aid cannot avert Third World disasters, it might make them significantly less severe if combined with a determined effort to prevent further environmental degradation. And that success might in turn help the wealthier industrialized countries to overcome the demands of recession and compassion fatigue—and to go on giving.
JOHN BIERMAN with DIANE BRADY in Toronto, E. KAYE FULTON in Ottawa and PETER LEWIS in Paris
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