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What kept the food from hungry mouths? / Questions raised by recent failures in Sudan

1985 December 6
by Paul Vallely

There ought, by now, to be a settled quality about the various refugee camps and feeding centres which Princess Anne is now visiting in Sudan. But behind the scenes the aid establishment is in a ferment of self-examination and critism over the handling of the famine in Africa.

The famine relief operation in Sudan this year was the largest distribution of free food the world has ever seen. Its aim was almost a million tons of grain, but its most crucial objective was to get 330,000 tons of American sorghum to stores in the west of the country before the rains came and made road transport impossible for weeks on end. That part of the programme was a failure.

The prospects for this year’s harvest are good, but it has once more failed substantially in some parts of the country and about 400,000 people will still need almost a million tons of food aid next year. The relief establishment is anxious that the mistakes of 1985 should not be repeated. But there is more to it than that. The operation in Sudan brought into question, in microcosm, many of the shibboleths on how the might of western technology and expertise can be brought to bear on the problems of the Third World.


The greatest blame must fall on the Sudanese government. The former president, Jafaar Nimeiry, gloried in the notion that Sudan could become the bread-basket of Africa and then pursued policies that brought it to the brink of agricultural disaster. The United Nations organizations were slow to pick up the challenge when Nimeiry was finally provoked into appealing for aid. Only the US government responded with speed and boldness.

But the plan by the United States Agency for International Development (USaid) to mount the huge relief operation took insufficient account of the enormous logistical problems this vast country, and the corruption and inefficiency of the Sudanese railway system on which it relied. Furthermore, in deference to Reaganite economic theory it placed undue importance on the use of a single commercial firm, in contrast with the state-controlled system in Ethiopia or the ad hoc systems run by charities in other parts of Africa.

When agencies such as the Red Cross, Band Aid and Save the Children offered to help, they were turned down on the grounds that their interference would upset the market for hiring lorries. The belated offers of the UN organizations to transport food were also declined until it was too late.

USaid, by far the biggest donor last year, has sent from Washington a senior team of analysts, led by a former director of the organization, to discover what went wrong. But already the Americans have decided to pull out of food distribution in Sudan.

This week, USaid handed over the operation to the newly established UN emergency office.

It is clear that the USaid officials deeply resent much of the criticism, but they are remaining tight-lipped about it.

Arkel-Talab, the joint Sudanese-American company contracted to deliver the grain to the two agencies in the west responsible for distribution at village level, Save the Children and Care, has by dint of its close association with USaid come in for heavy criticism, a good deal of it unfair.

‘People have used us as a scapegoat,’ said Ahmed Talab, chairman of Arkel-Talab. ‘We have got caught in the political crossfire between USaid and the UN.’ The company has been blamed for the injudicious decision to rely entirely on the Sudanese railway for ferrying grain between Kosti, in the Central Region, and Nyala in the west, when in fact that decision was imposed on it by the Sudanese government.

It was blamed, too, for the refusal to hand over grain to be transported by other organizations to the west when it became apparent that the original systems were inadequate. ‘If we took the decision that it was our right to give grain to anyone we thought was in need, we would have been acting irresponsibly as far as our contract was concerned,’ said Ahmed Talab.

Much of the criticism came from agencies without access to the details of the contract between Arkel-Talab and the Sudanese government’s Food Aid National Administration (FANA) for the distribution of the USaid sorghum. Although the original contract stipulated that a delivery schedule should be drawn up, this was never done, so that the only legal obligation on Arkel-Talab was that the grain should be delivered to 22 distribution points in the west by the middle of December.

Arkel-Talab was thus able to deny allegations by Save the Children and Care that it was ‘dumping’ food in places which were easy to get to while ignoring more inaccessible destinations. ‘Dumping is delivering to an area more than it has been allocated,’ said Ahmed Talab. It was not dumping to take food to places which were easy to get to at a time when the rains made other places impossible.

Rowland Roome, the regional administrator for Care, the US agency responsible for distribution in Kordofan, continues to be critical of Arkel-Talab, so much so that the company has asked for Roome to be removed from his post.

‘The contract was ludicrously liberal. They may have been acting within its letter, but they were not within the spirit of the job to get food to those who most desperately needed it,’ said Roome. ‘An area like western Sodiri, which was one of the worst hit – the Kababish people lost 95 per cent of their camels – continues to be subject to the worst level of food delivery.

‘The problem is that, by definition, the worst places are the hardest to get to: that’s how they get so bad in the first place. Had the distribution been placed in the hands of a charity, as it was in Somalia, instead of a commercial firm, then more effort could have been made to get food there, however uneconomic that would be.

Ahmed Talab feels this argument is unfair. ‘A charity is a charity. It can go into the market tomorrow and offer pounds 100 a sack and get a substantial number of trucks for Sodiri. That can be done. But as a commercial company with a fixed price contract, if you took that approach you might manage to deliver maybe 70 per cent and then go bankrupt.’

He resents accusations that his company was guilty of insensitivity, incompetence and greed when everything it did was in strict accordance with its contract. ‘Quite the opposite. We took a unilateral decision in May, without any amendment to our contract .. to move grain by road instead of waiting for the railway. The more we moved, the more we risked because the original contract did not offer us payment for this,’ he said, referring to an unofficial instruction by USaid to move overland 30,000 tons of the 192,000 due to go on the railway, a decision which the Sudanese government is currently refusing to finance.

On one thing, and on this alone, the numerous participants agree. The death toll in the remote west of Sudan has probably not been as great as was predicted six months ago.

There are as many reasons offered to explain this as there are parties to the relief effort. Agencies on the ground, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, talk of the astonishing hardiness of these desert peoples, who can withstand far greater deprivation than any Westerner could imagine. It is also possible that the nutrient value of the various famine foods of wild roots and berries is far greater than was supposed. USaid, which brought in an extra 560,000 tons of food for the famine victims, feels that, despite the snarl-up, sufficient food reached the population to make a difference. The United Nations emergency office in Khartoum is now saying that the original estimate of people at risk was inflated. The League of Red Cross Societies feels that many of those included in the national assessments had in fact already died unheeded in the drought of 1983-84.

‘The sad truth is that in these emergencies the real lessons are never learned,’ said a senior UN officer who asked not to be named. ‘The response in the first year is always inadequate because it is always incremental as people in different places gradually become aware of the scale of the problem. By then it is always too late. The only way round that is to have a large standing disaster body constantly in readiness, often waiting doing nothing, rather as an army does. But in economic terms that will always be unacceptable. In the end it’s always a question of pounds and sense.’


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