Main Site         

How US know-how has let down the Sudanese

1985 July 17
by Paul Vallely

It was the famine which could be prevented, or so confident aid workers were saying eight months ago. Yet today, despite the launch of probably the biggest distribution of free food in history – now boosted by Live Aid – thousands of people will die in the remote desert wastes of western Sudan. Thousands will die tomorrow and every day until the next harvest is garnered in the autumn. The UN predicts that the death toll could easily be more than half a million.

For the government of the United States the failure is a great embarrassment. The Sudanese relief operation was to have been a copybook example of the superiority of private sector management over the perverse distoritions and callous inequities produced when aid is manipulated as a political weapon, as it is by the Soviet-backed regime in neighbouring Ethiopia. In the event the Reagan administration’s insistence that the relief operation should be run as a commercial venture has forced the dollars 400 million programme into an ideological straitjacket as inhibiting as Ethiopia’s socialist central planning.

The first alarm bells were sounded in Darfour in June 1983 when the then governor of the region, Ahmed Ibrahim Dirij, published a report which talked, of some areas in the north which had had five successive years of drought. Hundreds of thousands of farmers were moving to the more fertile south which in bad years had often supported the north but where, in 1983 there had already been two years with poor rains, bad harvests and a noticeable decline in soil fertility.

There were stormy cabinet sessions as a result. President Nimeiry had been touting the idea that Sudan could become the breadbasket of the Arab world in an attempt to draw investment from the oil-rich Arab states, which he was also trying to woo with his introduction of Sharia law only three months later; he refused to countenance the idea of famine. Nothing was done. A high-level UN mission to the region reported chronic problems from years of bad land use and changing rainfall patterns, but no imminent crisis. Dirij, whose report and plan of action were to prove the blueprint for all future relief plans, went into exile at the end of the year.

The rains failed throughout Darfour for a third year, then a fourth. In May 1984 Oxfam and Save the Children Fund workers involved in a vaccination programme and nutritional surveys in the region sounded a second alarm. They told a visiting mission from the United States Agency for International Development (USaid) of 100 per cent crop failures in the north and 50 per cent failure in the south. Oxfam nutritionists warned that the average child in Darfour was already malnourished. They spoke of a need for food aid to fulfill the entire basic needs of almost the whole population. Warning signs of impending disaster were already present – there was no seed for the next harvest and foods normally used only for last resort famine subsistence were being sold in the markets.

Earlier in the year a USaid trouble-shooter had arrived from Washington to advise on tightening the control of aid in Sudan, a land where corruption is systemic and where large quantities of aid were going astray. The result was a plan to ferry one million tons of food into the country and distribute it free of charge, using not the hopeless Sudanese railways but a streamlined transport system controlled by western private enterprise.

It was a bold and generous plan but not one of pure altruism. Nimeiry, America’s staunchest ally in the Horn of Africa, was now totally dependent on US support for his continued rule; well-informed sources here say the food aid offer was conditional on an agreement to dump US nuclear waste in the remote deserts of Darfour

The scheme was also in line with Reaganite economic ideology which had already tempered the policy of both USaid and the World Bank; in Sudan the Americans had for almost four years been increasingly directing aid money to the private rather than the nationalized sector

The cost of sending by rail the food and the fuel needed to distribute it at the other end was still one third of that by road. Arkel-Talab the company awarded the distribution contract, decided to maximise their profits by using the railway; they were careful to insert a clause in their contract absolving them of any responsibility for delays on the railway.

Arkel-Talab’s private sector acumen paid some dividends. In Port Sudan they cut through the inefficiencies of unloading ships by introducing a new mechanized system. Although this has undoubtedly stored up union problems for the future, it has proved far more efficient than anything devised in other countries where relief efforts have become enmeshed in the lines of communication between the national government and their various international and voluntary agencies. But when the railway operations seized up in February, Arkel-Talab’s need to make a profit prevented them from taking the obvious but expensive step of ferrying the food direct to the west by road.

When organizations such as Save the Children and the UN tried to set up convoys to do this Arkel-Talab and USaid refused to give them any grain to carry. Ken Willis, the manager of Arkel-Talab at Kosti told Save the Children: ‘You’re trying to cut me out of the market. I’ve got to make a profit, you don’t. This relief work is not charity. It helps the US farmer who has excess grain. It helps the US silo man and the US shipping line. It helps a government which is a friend of the US. It helps a US company here in Sudan which then sends dollars back to the US. You want to rock the boat and upset that.’

This week, with the railway line out of operation after being washed away in nine places by flash floods USaid has finally agreed to provide food for a mile-long Save the Children convoy which is due to leave Kosti today. ‘We will do our best, of course’, said Michael Dick, of SCF, ‘but really it is too late now that the rains have come, making distribution so difficult at the other end. If we had our way those road convoys would have started in February.’ USaid has now sent a mission to Saudi Arabia to obtain 100 lorries and is talking of the far more costly alternative of aircraft and helicopters.

With hindsight USaid, or at least its critics here, can make an easy catalogue of errors. It ignored the recommendation of every report on the railways that even with the system operating at its best lorries would also be needed; it badly underestimated the speed with which the money from its own aid counterpart funds could be recovered within Sudan; it did not look with sufficient care at the possibility of bringing in food from the Atlantic ports through Chad – as one German agency has successfully done. It handed out the contract to a single logistics firm with few lorries of its own, leaving it to the mercy of a sub-contractors’ cartel. It acted with a self-confidence bordering on arrogance in not involving the Sudanese government in the operation, thus depriving SCF representatives in the field of the authority they needed to deal with local government officers, who have often been distributing the food in highly idiosyncratic ways.

However, a large measure of culpability must rest with the Nimeiry government which last year turned down an offer from the World Bank to refurbish the railway system because of the bank’s condition that 40 expatriate managers must be brought in. Nor have the major international agencies acted with any prescience.

Of the UN organizations, Unicef failed to alert the world to the decimation of the Beja nomads in the famine in the Red Sea hills where it was the only major organization in the field; the refugee commission was hopelessly unprepared to deal with the predicted exodus of refugees from Ethiopia into eastern Sudan; and the World Food Programme, which was involved in co-ordination discussions on the west of Sudan, was so dilatory that USaid and SCF got together to act independently.

The EEC has hardly acquitted itself well. For three consecutive months last year it delayed the despatch of a 12-man mission to report on the state of the railways; in the end the British government, in the knowledge that British firms stood to win much of the work involved, unilaterally sent a rail consultant to do the job. It was only a few weeks before the rains came that the EEC announced its dollars 7.5 million grant to the railway, which needs a dollars 163 million refurbishment.

EEC officials are privately uncomfortable at the low level of the Community’s emergency food aid to Sudan – 33,000 tons of supplementary food to date – and are constantly accused by aid workers of running a high publicity airlift as a fig leaf for their nakedness.

For an operation which set out to prove that private enterprise could run a relief operation most effectively, to end up resorting to the use of aircraft to deliver grain is a bitter irony indeed.

Comments are closed.