AFTER INDIA, the Sahel and Cambodia, the pictures are familiar: skeletal bodies, hopeless stares, children fighting for scraps of food or too weak to raise an arm. The impulse is to turn away in pain. Or to wonder why a world so well equipped with aircraft cannot divert some of it to get food that is available to people who are daily dying for lack of it.
This time the setting is East Africa. The Karamoja province of Uganda, Somalia -- which houses a million refugees from the endless war with Ethiopia -- and parts of Tanzania are the hardest hit. Scattered regions of Kenya and neighboring countries reaching all the way to South Africa also show evidence of unusually bad hunger and malnutrition. The immediate cause of the suffering is drought. But the effects of bad weather have been compounded by harmful government policies in Kenya and elsewhere; in Uganda, where conditions are the worst, the parallels to Cambodia are too obvious to miss.
The fighting before and after Idi Amin's departure prevented the normal planting. The following year, faced with hunger, many people were forced to eat the seeds that should have been saved for planting. Now the central government has ceased to work at all. Even the bare essentials of a food distribution system -- trucks, people to drive them, fuel to run them -- cannot be found. Those who know their way around are reluctant to enter Karamoja because of marauding bands of heavily armed bandits who have overrun it.
Unlike Cambodia, there was a plan to prevent starvation in Uganda. The United Nations Development Program arranged a swap in which Kenya would send 8,000 tons of corn across the border into neighboring Karamoja, and in turn would receive the same amount of Canadian wheat from U.N. supplies. The wheat arrived, but by then Kenya's supplies had disappeared, and the corn was never sent. Since then, the UNDP's chief representative in the area -- former American ambassador Melissa Wells -- has had to resort to sending cables to her headquarters demanding to know whether the organization "was just supposed to let these people die." Mrs. Wells' extraordinary personal efforts have elicited a response, but now the only hope is that relief efforts can diminish -- rather than prevent -- widespread death.
The underlying sources of recurrent hunger and famine in Africa will be hard to deal with. Africa has the highest rate of population growth in the world and, because so much of the population is under 15, it will require herculean efforts to slow it. But the magnitude of the larger long-term problem should not be used as an excuse for turning away from the immediate pain and suffering of the famine's victims.
There are two more crucial months before the local harvest. The amount of grain that is needed is small by absolute standards, but still enormous compared with what has been made available and the means to distribute it. A few transport helicopters, for example, would cost much more than trucks but could make short work of delivery problems. Is it possible that neither the United Nations nor the United States can find the means to do this?