Africa Gets Short Shrift

UN Relief agency chief Jan Egeland stepped on more toes when he complained that U.S. and other Western nations have "forgotten" Somalia. Egeland was not the first to note that the U.S. and the Western nations have maintained a sphinx silence on the massive devastation the tsunami wreaked on African countries. A score are known dead, many more injured, and thousands of homes were destroyed in Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Kenya and Tanzania. But Somalia was the hardest hit. Hundreds there are known dead, and more than 50,000 homes were destroyed. And that's probably a gross underestimate of the cataclysm.

Yet, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Governor Jeb Bush did not visit Somalia in their whirlwind damage fact-finding tour. That's understandable since U.S. relations with the country have been almost non-existent since the killing of 18 American soldiers by Somali mobs in 1993. But Powell and Bush could at least have made passing reference to the damage there.

While Bush officials have made a vague promise to deliver aid to Somalia, the country's president says that the promise has yet to be kept. The aid has been so meager that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees issued a "flash appeal" for funds for Somalia's victims. Despite Egeland's complaint, and the billions in aid pledged, and the outpouring of world sympathy for Asian nations, little has still been said and even less done about the plight of Africa's tsunami victims.

Bush administration officials and even some UN officials blame the Somalis themselves for the relief inaction. The country is wracked by a 13-year civil war, riddled with warlord factions, and devastated by drought and famine. It took the newly-elected Somali Prime Minister several days to travel to his country's most devastated areas. His government, which is based in Kenya, is virtually a government-in-exile.

The level of damage and known loss of life in Somalia pale in comparison to the deaths and damage in Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. They must, relief officials say, be given the most urgent aid priority.

Even if the damage was as great, and Somalia was not war ravaged and a U.S. and international pariah, it and the other tsunami hit African countries might not fare any better. A United Nations report in 2002 found that 20 African nations ranked dead last on the list of the world's nations with the lowest economic development rate. Even by the destitution standards of the other poor African nations on the UN list, Somalia, Tanzania, and Madagascar, languish at the bottom. A month before the tsunami struck, Egeland implored the rich nations to shell out $1.7 billion for the UN's 2005 humanitarian appeal. The money was exclusively earmarked for what the UN calls the world's 14 forgotten and largely neglected crises. They are all in Africa.

Bush has pledged $15 billion to fight AIDS and other diseases in Africa and the Caribbean. Congress has yet to cough up the money. Bush has also asked for $5 billion to fund his proposed Millennium Challenge Account to spur development in poor nations. Not one nickel of that money has yet been spent on any of the destitute nations, most of which are in Africa. Though the African nations did not suffer the death and damage that the worst hit Asian nations did, their chaotic governments, and empty treasuries, render them even less able to deal with the tsunami crisis than the Asian nations, and this makes the long-term impact of the destruction in these countries potentially as great.

Much of the blame for the famine, disease, poverty, and corruption that seem hopelessly endemic in many African countries, and not just Somalia, can be dumped squarely on the backs of the long parade of dictators, despots, and demagogues that rule or have ruled these countries. Africa's dictators have killed, maimed and terrorized their citizens, rigged or rejected free elections, have systematically looted their countries treasuries while living in palatial splendor. Their greed and dictatorial rule has locked their nations into the destructive and near permanent cycle of poverty, war, and disease, and dependency that has become Africa's trademark.

Meanwhile Africa's military rulers have squandered millions of their countries meager funds on sophisticated weapons mostly to keep themselves in power.

Then there is the lingering notion some of which is colored by antique racial stereotypes among some Western leaders that Africa is a primitive, tribal feuding backwash. Therefore, any money spent on development is money down a sinkhole.

If the U.S. and the rich nations had ponied up sufficient money for aid and development in Africa before the tsunami, Powell still would probably not have visited Somalia, and the world may not have beaten a path to aid the tsunami hit African nations. But they would have been able to help some of their disaster stricken people, and not as an afterthought.


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