Of 150 Million People'

My friend Ed Brown, a longtime black activist now an Atlanta businessman, was on the phone this week -- not to joke, as we sometimes do; not to dissect the presidential election, as everybody seems to be doing.

He wanted to talk about the drought that is devastating so much of Africa. "Despite the mutterings among us, despite the scenes of starving babies in Ethiopia on the evening news, this situation hasn't received the exposure it needs. And what is sadder to me is that there has been no articulate black leadership on this issue."

How, he wondered, does one "build a fire, generate some effective concern, especially among the black leadership, before 25-30 million people starve to death" as a result of the drought that has swept Africa from the Horn to the Sahel?

Brown thinks it is vital to pressure the Reagan administration to do more, although it has recently moved to join in a relief effort for Ethiopia, despite its communist government. "The $480 million that they have provided for African relief is a drop in the bucket," he said. "That needs to be doubled, tripled, to address the problem, even 15 months out."

But of equal importance -- politically and psychologically, if not financially -- is the need for black Americans to take direct responsibility, he said. "I'm talking about mobilization in cities and towns cross America, with every strata of the black community, to raise serious money. Especially in those cities with black mayors, it would be easy to declare fund-raising periods as part of a coordinated effort. We've just got to do that. We can't just sit around and watch these people starve."

Brown's views find a ready echo among those organizations set up to deal with Africa. Africare, for instance, has long been in the business of providing direct assistance for Africans, particularly in the Sahel of West Africa, but more recently in Ethiopia as well. But the present situation is special in its potential for disaster, says Africare's executive director C. Payne Lucas. "The starving Ethiopian babies on the evening news have sparked some response, but it's a lot harder to get the Chads and the Malis and the Nigers on television. Overall we may be talking about the potential starvation of 150 million people, because when there is a drought it is a certainty that there will soon be famine."

Trans-Africa, another Washington-based organization, is basically a lobby for African and Caribbean interests. But its executive director, Randall Robinson, is gearing up for more direct action in the present emergency. He is now in the process of trying to talk radio and television stations into sponsoring celebrity radiothons and telethons, both to raise money and to drive home the seriousness of the threat to human life.

Similar actions are being considered by other organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran Relief and World Vision. All of it is needed, and none of it gainsays Ed Brown's point that a coordinated effort is needed -- perhaps through a temporary alliance of the organizations already involved -- and that a substantial portion of the money needs to come from black Americans themselves.

"Especially in light of the political situation, we need to be outer directed," he said. "We need to stop thinking of ourselves solely as victims of racism or whatever and begin to address, quite directly, the problems that we see as important to our interests. We can no longer afford the luxury of a myopic view that has us thinking only of civil rights."

Brown's idea is sound psychology, but it is far more than that. Scores of millions of people face starvation as a result of a sustained drought. In the long term, ways will have to be found to substitute for inadequate rainfall -- irrigation systems, wide-diameter wells and other costly arrangements.

But the immediate problem is starvation. And it's a problem not just for government but for every church, every club and organization, every American with a dollar to spare.