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US Renews Concerns About Famine in East Africa - 2003-04-02


U.S. officials and members of Congress have expressed renewed concern about famine in Africa. The governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as Zimbabwe, came under sharp criticism during a hearing of the House International Relations Committee.

The committee's chairman, Republican Congressman Henry Hyde, says recurring famine in Africa is directly linked with the failings and abuses of African governments. "Famine is not about waiting for the rains that didn't come. It is about failing to enact policies that ensure a country's means to cope with expected adversity," he says. "Famine is about the deliberate manipulation of resources for political gains. Famine is about denying people the right to own their own land, stifling free enterprise and controlling the means by which to produce food."

Among witnesses at the hearing was Frank Wolf, a Virginia congressman who visited Ethiopia and Eritrea earlier this year. Calling the famine one of "biblical proportions," he expressed exasperation with what he called a wasteful conflict between these two nations. "Worse still is bad governance, which exacerbated a two-and-a-half year border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea literally over nothing. We went up to the edge [border], and nothing has changed," says Mr. Wolf. "It's a desert area with mines and no change! And yet a lot of resources that could have fed people."

Congressman Wolf also noted the alarming spread of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia, which he said had killed 300,000 people in recent years, with more than three-million believed to be HIV positive.

Most of the hearing focused on frustration lawmakers have with government policies and corruption they say have plunged countries into wave after wave of famine.

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, renewed his sharp assessment of what he called a "man-made catastrophe" in Zimbabwe. "[In] Zimbabwe, which is a man-made famine, where there was a weather problem that could easily have been dealt with given that half the country was in irrigated agriculture. The destruction of the irrigated agricultural system, by the Zimbabwe government, Mr. Mugabe directed this, has been a catastrophe for the country," he says. "The country is still severely at risk."

As for Ethiopia, the committee heard from Mesfin Wolde Mariam, a geographer who has faced government harassment for linking famine with political corruption. "Ethiopia's agricultural resources, such as land, water resources, and climatic diversity, are such that they would make the country a surplus [food] producer," he says. "It is mis-guided policies, and mismanagement of these resources that lead to impoverishment of the people, especially peasants."

In other testimony, the Deputy Director of the World Food Program (WFP), Sheila Sisulu, said 11-million Ethiopians require food and other relief aid, while in Eritrea, about 1.5 million are in need. She put the number of HIV/AIDS infections in Ethiopia at just over two-million, with 55,000 in Eritrea.

On Wednesday, the House International Relations Committee will be finalizing legislation to provide new U.S. funding to fight AIDS around the world. A Senate committee plans similar action.

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