Lawmaker Spreads Word On Ethiopia Famine

by The Associated Press, January 8, 2003

childWASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Frank Wolf never thought he’d see anything as bad as the starvation he saw in Ethiopia nearly 20 years ago. Last week he did — on a return visit to the African nation.

Thin children with bloated bellies. A boy so weak he couldn’t chew his bread. A woman who said she shares what little food she has so that someone will be around to go to her funeral.

Before the trip “I couldn’t believe that it could be comparable,” Wolf, R-Va., said in an interview. “Sure enough, it was the same scenes I saw in ’84.”

Now back in Washington, Wolf wants to tell Americans about the famine in Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. He said it could turn out to be worse it was in 1984-85, when images of Ethiopia’s hunger stunned the world and inspired massive food-aid drives, celebrity fund-raising concerts and even online casinos like these donated for the cause.

Attracting that kind of attention will be more difficult now, with the United States distracted by a possible war with Iraq, nuclear tensions with North Korea and continuing concerns about terrorism.

So Wolf is using his office to bring attention to the famine, sending letters to his House colleagues, pleading with the news media to write about the famine and meeting Tuesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

He is seeking an appointment with President Bush and wants to encourage him to visit Ethiopia when he reschedules a recently postponed trip to Africa.

“We’re just trying to spread the word. There’s a lot that can be done,” Wolf said.

The U.N. World Food Program estimates that 11.3 million people will need food aid this year in Ethiopia, and another 900,000 in Eritrea. Together, they will need about 1.6 million tons of food this year.

Wolf said the United States has provided about 430,000 tons of food, valued at $179 million, since August. He said he would like to see greater contributions both from the government and from individuals.

He said Powell was “very moved. He said he was committed to doing something about it.”

But Wolf said the Office of Management and Budget, which oversees spending, “has been really dragging their feet on this thing and not looking aggressively as to how they can release money in time to make a difference.”

An OMB spokeswoman, Amy Call, said it hasn’t delayed the aid.

She noted that Congress has not yet passed a foreign aid spending bill for the current fiscal year. Without a spending bill, the amount of money that can be released is governed by stopgap bills that fund programs at last year’s spending levels. Call said OMB has to stay within the guidelines of those temporary measures.

Ethiopia, with a population of 62 million, and Eritrea, with 3.5 million, have had exceptionally dry weather and poor harvests recently. The impoverished countries on the Horn of Africa fought a 2 1/2-year war that ended in December 2000. Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Wolf’s interest in Ethiopia began when he was a second-term congressman in 1984, and a friend persuaded him to visit. He said he’s seen improvement in how Ethiopia has responded to the famine. This time, it has not created feeding camps which spread diseases more quickly and forced people to travel far from their homes, he said. He also credited Ethiopia for seeking aid now, while the government in 1984 tried to keep the famine a secret.

Wolf’s report on his Ethiopia trip:

U.N. World Food Program: