Southern Africa: Interview with Carolyn McAskie, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator
QUESTION: On your recent assessment mission to Southern Africa headed by the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy James Morris, what were your impressions of the depth of the food crisis affecting the region?
ANSWER: I would mention two or three points. One is the extent of the food crisis, it is very real. The fact that we're not seeing starving people on TV means that, hopefully, we are going to be able to catch it before it deteriorates. But the fact is that the new figures released show that the number of people affected over the next few months is going to rise to in excess of 14 million. That is a very serious crisis indeed. We've seen the extent to which communities are losing their coping capacity, and they have very little in the way of reserves, so the food crisis is very real.
The other impression is of course something we were already aware of, but it really hits home when you see it, and that is the extent to which this is also a development crisis. With the right kind of inputs, the right kind of management, the right kind of long-term planning, one would expect the region of Southern Africa to be able to cope with the climatic variations that they've had. And what has to be done, and we know that governments in the region generally are committed to this, is that they're aware that they have to be more aggressive at putting into place long-term coping strategies, and the UN is gearing up to work on that aspect. But my third impression, and this is something that although we were aware of, we really didn't realise how much it would hit us, and that is how the exploding intensity of the AIDS crisis is the overriding factor in the causing of suffering in this region. And it's very intertwined with the food crisis ...
The AIDS crisis is decimating the productive generation of Southern Africa. You have rates as high as 20, 25, 30 even 35 percent of populations affected in some areas. This means that the health services are under enormous stress in coping with sick people, and the health services are also under stress because they too are losing a cadre of workers in that productive age group. And the education system is under stress. You have children collapsing in school from hunger, you have orphans who can't come to school because their parents are dead from AIDS. On the food side, the fact is that AIDS patients, along with other sick people, need a different kind of nutrition to cope with their illnesses. In addition to the medical inputs that are required to deal with AIDS and other illnesses, the fact is if you can't get food to these people, then they are really going to suffer. Because what was said to us in many places was that food was the first drug, the first medication that people needed.
Q: In comparison with the 1992 drought, is it just the HIV/AIDS pandemic or are there other factors that make this current crisis so acute?
A: Well I'd say there are a number of other management issues that need to be addressed as well. The AIDS crisis is the real issue that makes it different from the 1992 crisis. Another difference is that we're not just dealing with a drought. We're dealing with very erratic rains in some countries. In Lesotho, for example, part of the problem was the fact there was too much rain at the planting season, so they couldn't plant. The other thing is the growing dependency on maize as a food crop. Maize is not only very susceptible to the right amount of rain, but rain at the right moment, so you've got a problem there.
The other issue is market liberalisation ... I think what's different from '92, is that very little has been done to liberalise markets in the region. We were very fortunate to have a member of SADC [Southern African Development Community] traveling with us, and one of the things we talked to SADC about is to look at the West African model. After the heavy droughts in the Sahel region of West Africa in the '70s, you don't see famine anymore, and that's because a number of things were put in place - market liberalisation inter-governmental committees, donor support groups - all designed to ensure that the management of the agricultural sector was designed to avoid these tragedies. The other aspect of this crisis is that we have to get beyond thinking of it as just a food crisis - it's also a health crisis and an education crisis, and water crisis as well - and in addition to getting food to people, we've got to get the support of people in the community around programmes to keep kids in school.
Q: Is it all just about money, funds from the donors?
A: First of all funds are needed. We're not doing too badly on the food side, we still need a lot, but the rate at which the food money is coming in at the moment is encouraging. Although there are still major gaps, we have enough promises in hand that if the donors move quickly to make good on those promises and pledges, then we won't be in too bad a shape. However, we are seriously short on what we call the "non-food" money for education projects, the health projects, water and sanitation projects, and we desperately need to publicise that aspect. But it's not just that. We need to make sure that everybody is in an emergency mode, and not everybody is.
Most governments as a rule do recognise it as an emergency, but some have not officially declared a state of emergency, so you find the response is a bit spotty in some countries with some sectors operating in emergency mode, and others aren't. And we want to make sure that the health sector, the education sector, the agriculture sector, are all operating in emergency mode. We've [also] got to be vigilant in working with governments to make sure that logistics and bureaucratic obstacles don't get in the way of moving the products. There's no use shipping medicines to health clinics if they sit at the border for two weeks. There's no use in fixing the Nacala railway line, as the donors are very generously doing between Mozambique and Malawi, for example, if the train sits at the border, and we don't have the permits to move things across. So that's why we are looking at it from a regional approach. We want help from the regional organisations to speed up the process with the permits for imports and the exports, so there are definite obstacles that we are dealing with, yes.
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