Lesotho + 3 more

UN's envoy in Washington to convey enormity of food/Aids crisis

Originally published
Akwe Amosu, Washington, DC
At the end of January, the UN Secretary General's special envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, James Morris, completed a tour of four countries in the region and said the HIV/Aids pandemic was threatening the very future of nations. One president told him: "My country is on the verge of extinction."

There are 2.6 million orphans in Southern Africa, 780,000 of them in Zimbabwe. In Malawi, ten per cent of families are headed by a child.

Zambia lost 2,000 teachers last year to Aids and half the country's students have dropped out of school.

Seven million agricultural workers have been lost in southern Africa since 1985; another 16m will be lost by 2020.

Some 70-80% of hospital admissions are people with HIV/Aids; 8,000 people die every 24 hours.

Morris, who is also executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), had travelled through Zambia, Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe with Kofi Annan's envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa, Stephen Lewis. The two men returned warning that an entirely new and bold approach was needed to address the intertwined crises of devastating illness and drought-afflicted agriculture.

Earlier, Morris had warned the Security Council that "the magnitude of the disaster unfolding in Africa has not been fully grasped by the international community... An exceptional effort is urgently needed if a major catastrophe is to be averted. Business as usual will not do."

Ten years ago, Morris says, 80 per cent of the work done by WFP was in development and only 20 per cent was in response to food emergencies. Now, however, those numbers are reversed.

The world has a responsibility to feed the children who have lost their parents, he says, to get them to school and teach them about agriculture. Mechanisation of agriculture has to be on the agenda, lightweight tools are needed, the burden on women needs to be eased.

James Morris is clearly a determined man but the enormity of the task ahead appears overwhelming: "I'm a positive person but I must tell you, every time I go through this recitation, I do become a bit bewildered," he told a conference on HIV/Aids in Africa hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Thursday.

And there is an edge of anger to his voice when he talks specifically of the policies of the Zimbabwe government. "There is 34% prevalence there. The government has no foreign exchange to buy food; it is refusing to allow the market to work to deliver food. WFP will provide a quarter of what they need; I have no idea where the rest of it is going to come from."

Morris this week briefed Senators and members of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC and met with President Bush. He gave an interview to Jerry Hagstrom, National Journal's Congress Daily and Akwe Amosu of allAfrica.com.

What's your overall message to officials here in Washington?

The overall message is that the number of people at risk around the world because of emergencies is huge, as large as we've ever known it, and our needs to do our job - provide food especially for the hungriest and poorest people, more often than not targeting women and children - is enormous.

Given the issues in Africa, our food requirements will be larger this year than ever in history; and you look at southern Africa, now complicated by the horn of Africa, now complicated by the west of Africa, the Sahel, and other issues - together with ongoing needs in North Korea, Palestine - to do our work we're going to we need more help than we've ever had before.

Is the Bush administration's current budget for food aid too low?

I'm encouraged - the supplemental appropriation, the president's commitment to the famine fund and the emergency fund - I'm very grateful for what the United States is able to do for us; the issue is that we simply have more challenges than normal.

We've suddenly seen the issues in Africa grow substantially and this ongoing problem of HIV/Aids and the impact it's had on the agricultural economy and its impact on children, and the way it's produced all of these orphans, the impact it's had on the women and the impact on the elderly - there are so many people in involved, and the magnitude of the numbers of people who are infected - this is a story that the world absolutely has to understand.

So what's your strategy for getting the money you need? Obviously it's good if the US or any other government puts some money forward but you're talking in terms that suggest you're going to need an extraordinary effort.

My strategy is to hope that our most important current donors will find ways to help us in larger numbers; there are twenty countries in the world that haven't been substantial supporters of ours in the past who are beginning to have the ability to be so; and then we're going to reach out to the worldwide private sector and ask it to help us.

Is that something that's happened before, that you've had private sector donations?

No, this is new for us. There are other UN agencies that have had private sector support and have used it very wisely and productively; over the next five years we're hoping that we'll have such support. We've put in place our first partnership with a very important Dutch company, TPG, which has 150,000 employees. And their commitment to school-feeding, to get their employees involved is extraordinary. My hope is that we'd have ten partners like that over the next five years.

How will that work? Will the individual employees be making donations to a fund?

Yes, my sense is that individual employees will make contributions, the company will make contributions, the company will match employee contributions. TPG is a company in the logistics business, they understand delivery and storage, and transportation - the things we do - and they'll help us get better at what we do.

Do you believe your message that a really extraordinary effort is now required is getting across in the rich world?

I think the world in general doesn't want women and children to be at risk, doesn't want people to be hungry. The world knows we have the ability to produce enough food. The issues of logistics and local production need to be addressed, and the world is generous.

But I'm saying these are extraordinary times and we're going to have to be a little more generous to have the resources to deal with this unusual convergence of problems. The HIV/Aids issue - we have not had a health predicament like this certainly in my life time and I don't know if we've ever had it in the world.

The economic impact of it, the cultural impact, the family impact, the impact on children, on all the coping mechanisms of a family or a country, on the bureaucracy with its loss or depletion of human resources, is enormous. There are leadership issues, there are resources issues. I don't have the answers and the world needs to be as thoughtful about this set of issues as about anything on the agenda today.

But nonetheless you came back from your recent visit to southern Africa with a list of things that might help - like lightweight tools for farmers and other practical proposals?

I think, number one, we do have to provide enough food for people to get through this. For people who are HIV-infected, or vulnerable to HIV, we need to make a change in the food basket we provide for them.

Given the fact that 80% of agricultural life in Africa is conducted by women and women are now hugely infected and the burden is on them to take care of children, to provide food, to take care of others who are ill, we've got to find labour-saving devices, you've got to find diversification strategies for agriculture that are more drought resistant; and, in the aggregate, we simply need to make more investment in agricultural infrastructure - we've been on a downward trend and we need to get that turned around.

We probably need more take home kits [a bag of items used to care for the very sick] and more community outreach.

So if, for example, John Deere or some other manufacturer of agricultural machinery hears this message, could they do something practical that could help with this effort?


What could they do?

Be generous. They could provide technical expertise, either to national ministries of agriculture, or working through the [UN's] Food and Agriculture Organisation, or working through a variety of community-based organisations.

I think our success in the long run is going to be based on our ability to identify small neighbourhood community groups, section by section, to provide services and care. But companies can become advocates, they can get their employees engaged, be thoughtful about these issues; there's lot's a company can do.

Would you be calling on companies to do this?

My hope is that companies will be thoughtful about their social responsibility and about the huge needs in the world that they can help to address. I'm hopeful that there will be a number of companies that want to partner with the WFP and help us do our work better and, in the process, increase, enhance the service we provide to millions of people at risk.

If we're serious about the Millennium Development Goals - of cutting hunger in half, reducing infant mortality, improving maternal and child health care, getting water and sanitation to folks, getting more students enrolled in primary education, achieving gender equity in education - it's going to take all of the resources the world has to make progress and everyone has something they can contribute.

So are you actively asking the companies for money, or expertise or - ?

Well I would hope that we could find ways that the business community worldwide could be involved with us in terms of supporting our work, helping to improve our work, to educate their employees about our work; they can help to be thoughtful about how we get lightweight agricultural implements, how we can improve the delivery of seeds and agriculture, how we can improve access to water, improve healthcare and get medical help to people - this is an unusual set of circumstances.