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UNICEF Concerned Iraq Crisis May Affect Other Humanitarian Efforts - 2003-04-03

The head of the U.N. International Childrens Emergency Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, says she fears the lingering effects of war in Iraq will make it harder to raise money for other humanitarian crises around the world, such as the southern Africa food crisis.

Ms. Bellamy has joined with the leaders of other agencies in an appeal for $1.2 billion to pay for humanitarian intervention in Iraq after the war. The UNICEF director said she is also worried that international donors will divert aid money to Iraq, leading to shortfalls in other parts of the world that also desperately need assistance.

"I am concerned that because the world's attention - I understand why - but because the world's attention is so focused on Iraq, that from Afghanistan to southern Africa, funding for these real ongoing crises could be put in jeopardy," said the UNICEF director.

Ms. Bellamy was in Johannesburg for a meeting with officials from several U.N. agencies to discuss the results of a new nutrition survey of the six southern African countries affected by the food shortage during the past year.

The results, which are still preliminary, show that there has been no overall increase in malnutrition among children in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

The survey also indicates something that surprised some U.N. experts. The nutritional status of children in some of the most vulnerable, hardest-hit communities stayed the same or even improved. Those tended to be the areas where U.N. agencies focused their aid efforts.

However, in some better-off communities, which were not thought to be as severely affected by the food shortage, the children's nutritional status got worse, and malnutrition increased.

Ms. Bellamy said the survey will help guide future interventions by U.N. agencies, including UNICEF and the World Food Program, by helping them figure out what strategies worked.

"There was success. Sometimes you can claim success," she said. "There actually was success in this humanitarian crisis of reducing the most severe impact, but something that we did not recognize was that by focusing on the most severe areas, some of the less severe areas were deteriorating. So it is a lesson for the future."

At the peak of the food shortage, the U.N. said, more than 14 million people were in danger of starving in southern Africa. That figure is steadily falling as crop yields increase in parts of the region. But it is not clear how long it will take before the crisis is really over.

U.N. officials say two years of erratic rains hurt harvests, but the weather is not the only reason for the crisis. They are increasingly pointing the finger at the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which has killed or sickened the most productive members of society and weakened families' abilities to cope.

In some of the affected countries, a third of the people between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected with HIV. Millions of children in southern Africa have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

Ms. Bellamy says the deadly combination of AIDS and food shortages is having particularly devastating consequences for women and girls, who are hardest hit by both crises and also bear most of the burden of caring for orphaned and ill relatives.