Zambia’s plight goes begging in year of disasters

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February 23, 2006

Isabel Ndona and her sister
Isabel Ndona was taken to the feeding center at Nangweshi Refugee Camp after collapsing from hunger. Her sister Anita Vamba watches over her.

NANGWESHI REFUGEE CAMP, Zambia — Hundreds of refugees from Angola’s civil warhave walked away from this remote United Nations outpost where most have lived for years, many roaming on foot as far as the Namibia border, 85 miles away. The journey was not by choice. The refugees were looking for food.

In January, to stretch its thinning supplies, the United Nations cut its already basic food rations to war refugees in Zambia by almost 40 percent — not just for the Nangweshi camp’s 15,100 residents, but also for 57,000 refugees from Congo in four other camps.

The cuts were made after the developed world did not respond to United Nations’ pleas for help to feed the refugees. Like similar appeals, they went unheeded in a year of many disasters and what aid specialists call a growing malaise among donors about such emergencies.

That thousands of war refugees cared for by the United Nations should go hungry for want of about $8.5 million, what amounts to a rounding error in the budgets of wealthy countries, may seem surprising. But the international system that is supposed to protect refugees from hunger and privation is prone to breakdowns like this one, which has rendered 72,000 war victims in Zambia hungry for weeks on end.

The food reductions in the camps prevented the United Nations’ World Food Program from running out of rations. But even a brief visit to Nangweshi, a grid of wide dirt roads and thousands of mud huts beside the Zambezi River, makes the cost of the move painfully evident. Only a month after rations were reduced, refugees have left to seek food and money to feed their families. Malnutrition among the camp’s remaining children has risen by more than one third.

One Nangweshi family of 10, its monthly ration exhausted, weathered January’s final days by eating leaves plucked from plants growing outside its hut. Other families resorted to begging in villages outside the camp, but the drought last year left local residents so bereft that food or money for needy refugees is scarce. “It’s a matter of priorities for the international community,” David Stevenson, the Canadian who leads the World Food Program’s Zambia operations, said in an interview in Lusaka, the capital. “What could be more obvious than refugee camps?”

Mr. Stevenson said that lapses in international food aid to refugees had been a recurring problem in Rwanda, and that after the earthquake in Pakistan last October the World Food Program came within hours of grounding its food airlifts because it was out of cash.

Lapses in aid are often temporary. In February, nearly four months after the World Food Program first sought emergency aid for Zambia’s refugees, the United States, Britain and Germany made pledges totaling $2.3 million toward the $8.5 million shortfall. The infusion will eventually allow the program to restore many, though not all, of the cuts made on
Jan. 1.

Even temporary shortfalls, however, have consequences. The same Zambian camps that suffered ration cuts in January ran short of food in late 2004, officials here say. At that time, some of the women in the camps turned to prostitution to feed their children.

Meager Rations Are Cut

Few would call the monthly stipend given to most African refugees overly generous. Before the reductions in January, a Nangweshi resident’s average meal consisted of 4.7 ounces of nutrient-fortified ground corn, 2 ounces of beans, half an ounce of vegetable oil and a pinch of salt. Three servings a day provided 2,207 calories, the minimum the World Food Program recommends for adequate nutrition among Zambian refugees.

Then in January, the diet was pared to 1,400 calories — the equivalent, roughly, of subsisting each day on one Big Mac, large fries, ketchup and a Coke.

Most of Nangweshi’s 4,100 families reacted predictably to the cuts. To stretch out their rations, they moved to two meals a day from three, eliminating breakfast. But it was still not enough. In family after family, January’s rations were exhausted a week or more before the February food delivery was due.

In the camp’s medical clinic, a chalkboard tallied the fallout from the cuts: moderate malnutrition was diagnosed in 106 children in January, up from 69 in December; 2 other children had acute malnutrition, compared with none earlier. The clinic recorded a similar jump in late 2004, the last time rations were reduced.

Outside, amid the camp’s stick-and-mud-walled, thatched huts, virtually every family had a story about hunger.

Even before the cuts, “what we normally receive was not enough,” said Gabriel Vunonge, the 62-year-old, one-legged patriarch of a refugee family of 13. The reduced ration, he said, “won’t reach.”

Virtually all Angolan war refugees have returned home under a United Nations repatriation program. The remainder, all in Nangweshi, are mostly former rebel supporters and guerillas like Mr. Vunonge who fear retribution and are awaiting the outcome of Angolan elections this year before deciding whether to return.

In the Vunonge family, the January rations ran out a week before the February distribution was to began. So, Mr. Vunonge took his crutches and, with his wife, hobbled several miles outside the refugee camp to look for work.

Three days of weeding a farmer’s cornfield — Mr. Vunonge working with one hand on his crutch, the other on a hoe — bought the couple 26 pounds of wheat. That fed the family until February rations arrived.

Many men ranged much farther afield. In January, the United Nations issued 176 passes for Nangweshi residents to leave the camp. Most walked to Sesheke, a town 85 miles away where a sawmill has long attracted job-seeking refugees.

Many more refugees left without passes. In January, for the first time, Sesheke officials arrested 10 newly arrived illegal refugees in the town.

“There are still a great many refugees in the area, and the worry at the moment is food allocation,” said Princess Nakatindi Wina, who represents Sesheke in the Zambian Parliament. “We hope the government will get a move on and repatriate them soon, back to Angola and Congo, to where they came from.”

Vital Aid Is Left to Chance

Why shortfalls of aid to refugees and other equally vulnerable groups occur at all is vexing. The system that funnels food to the world’s needy rests almost wholly on the generosity of the well-off, and each donor’s impulse is subject to different forces.

Fluctuations in food prices, the size of crop surpluses in donating nations, politics in donor and recipient nations, and the inefficiencies of the global aid bureaucracy can all play a role in what aid specialists euphemistically call ‘pipeline breaks’.”
Food shortages have become so regular in parts of Africa that some governments consider them normal, rather than emergencies — an attitude many aid officials say was at the root of the sluggish response last year to widespread hunger in Niger.

Often, as in Niger, money comes only belatedly, after wealthy donors have been harangued by the United Nations or embarrassed by news media coverage of hungry masses.

That is the crux of the problem, many aid specialists say. Support for global emergencies is purely voluntary, forcing humanitarian agencies to go hat in hand to governments, not just to sustain continuing programs like refugee camps, but for new emergencies like the 2004 tsunami.

“We are professional beggars,” said one Europe-based United Nations official on condition of anonymity for fear of angering donor nations.

He added: “Some activities, you can decide whether you want to voluntarily fund or not. But things like Darfur, like refugees — for that sort of thing, we should have a system that produces money faster.”

The four-month break in the aid pipeline to refugees in Zambia has many explanations. Officials at the United States Agency for International Development — by far the largest donor of food, worldwide and to Zambia’s refugees — said 2005 was exceptionally demanding.

“We were wrapped up in the west Sahel crises in mid-September,” said Michael Hess, the agency’s assistant administrator, referring to the drought in Niger.

“When the United Nations began seeking food for Zambia,” he said, “I think some people had their attention focused elsewhere.”

Mr. Hess suggested, however, a second concern — the reluctance of some other donors to “step up to the plate,” leaving most relief work to the United States and a handful of other nations, including Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Britain and other European governments. Notably absent were the oil-rich governments of the Middle East and Angola itself, now at peace and reaping billions from oil and diamond sales.

Off the Radar Screen

Whether from a lack of perceived urgency, impatience with other donors or what Mr. Hess called “glitches in the system,” refugees in Zambia were not on American or European radars when the United Nations called for food aid last October. So a diet set to meet only basic needs was scaled back to below the minimum required to allay malnutrition.

In Nangweshi’s nutrition center, a 36-year-old mother of eight sat in the dank hall with her youngest, a 2-year-old with diarrhea. In January, she said, their food ran out eight days before the February allotment.

Guillermina Ngeve said she left the camp to forage. “But it wasn’t easy,” she said. “They don’t have any food, either.” The drought last year left most people in this region hungry, and despite good rains this year, the harvest is months away.

Ms. Ngeve found piecework. Two days of weeding a field netted about 4.4 pounds of wheat, which she boiled, parceled into small cups and served without adornment. That lasted four days. Next, the family raided the bean and squash patch outside its hut, but nothing was ripe. So until fresh rations arrived, Ms. Ngeve said, “we ate the leaves.”

New donations by the United States and European governments have boosted the daily ration to 1,700 calories, still short of the World Food Program’s guidelines.

Asked what she would do if rations ran short again, she said: “If I hear of somewhere where there is piecework, I will go.”