National Geographic Even as the world spotlight glares on the misery of Bangladesh's disaster-plagued people and Iraq's fleeing Kurds, all but lost in the shadows are the estimated 27 million Africans who may die of starvation this year in 25 countries.
More than 100 million Africans - nearly one-sixth of the continent's 646 million people - are considered "food insecure," defined by the World Bank as people who do not have enough food for normal health and activity.The threat of famine is most severe in Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Somalia and Sudan, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
More than 20 million people are at risk there, 7.7 million in Sudan alone. "Only a massive effort in the coming months in support of these countries can avert further widespread suffering and loss of life," the FAO reported in March.
It is the most dire forecast since the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s killed hundreds of thousands of people, and potentially far more serious. But world attention is turned elsewhere.
Emergency food needs for 46 of Africa's 56 countries are calculated at 5.1 million tons in 1991, about 2 million tons more than were received in 1989-90, according to the FAO.
But the plight of the Kurds in Iraq, food shortages in the Soviet Union and the emergence of Eastern European countries as beneficiaries of Western donations are draining financial aid away from Africa.
Africa also suffers, experts say, from "compassion or donor fatigue," the unwillingness of many donors to continue contributing to a continent where hunger and refugee problems seem endless and irremediable.
Within war-torn African countries, governments are often in chaos, spending money on weapons instead of bread and cutting off food supplies as a tactic against their enemies.
"There's no doubt that people will starve to death because of the inability of international efforts and African national governments to deliver assistance," says an international-relief expert who speaks on condition of anonymity. "It's a crime. It's just as serious a crime as Saddam Hussein's crime against Kuwait."
"Media attention and public support made a major difference in the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, when up to a million people died," says Alan Alemian, an East Africa expert at Washington-based Africare.
The deadly combination of drought and civil war causes deteriorating harvests in the worst regions. Mozambique, for example, normally has enough resources to grow food for its people, but civil conflict has completely disrupted its ability to feed itself.
"The Sudan is really a recipe for disaster. With war and weather problems, there is a 1.2 million-ton grain gap between what is needed and what they have. It's as bad as Ethiopia was in '84-85," Jonathan Olsson of the U.S. Agency for International Development tells National Geographic.
In rebellion-ravaged Sudan, some southern tribal people have been forced to sell their children in return for food. Other Sudanese have died while waiting for relief planes to arrive; their skeletons have been found near landing strips.
The Sahel, a semi-arid belt stretching 3,000 miles across six African nations on the southern edge of the Sahara, also "is in a very precarious position, much worse than anyone thought," Olsson says. Drought there is routine.
Poor harvests are predicted this year even in the more-fertile southern African countries, with no exportable surpluses available to help relieve the stricken nations to the north, the FAO report says.
Besides catastrophic famine, chronic hunger is pervasive throughout Africa. "Within many villages, hunger is a day-to-day struggle. The people see it as a problem beyond them, and they wait helplessly for their land to be destroyed," says geographer Francis Odemerho of the University of Benin in Nigeria.
"Chronic food insecurity is directly tied to a state of poverty," says geographer Calvin Masilela of Indiana University in Pennsylvania. Food security is a national policy in nine southern African countries, but "the majority of them are experiencing overall food deficits," Masilela says.
Africa's poverty persists without solution. The "average African continues, for the 12th successive year, to get poorer," according to the 1990 regional assessment by the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. In the commission report, Chairman Adebayo Adedegi of Nigeria writes:
"It is a measure of the socioeconomic decay and retrogression on our continent that the number of countries officially classified as least-developed countries - the wretched of the Earth as they have been categorized - rose to 29 in 1990, with the inclusion of Liberia, and many more, I regret to say, are still knocking at the door to join."