President Reagan yesterday announced a $125 million package of food aid to Africa, most of it in wheat that will be shipped directly to half a dozen nations stricken by famine.
"The people of Africa continue to be in desperate need and the cost in human lives is . . . horrible," Reagan said in a brief ceremony in the Roosevelt Room.
Reagan said that 300,000 metric tons of wheat, valued at $50 million, will be made available from federal grain reserves. The United States will provide $50 million from a foreign aid emergency food fund, most of which will be used to purchase grain, and $25 million to help distribute it.
"This action will help maintain our generous response to the suffering of needy people and keep the pipeline supplied as we continue to assess needs and other possible responses," Reagan said.
While world attention in recent weeks has been focused on Ethiopia, where televised pictures of starving children have prompted an outpouring of private donations, much of the grain released by Reagan yesterday apparently will be sent to other African nations.
"We've got the pipeline to Ethiopia really filled," said M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
However, other African nations also are experiencing severe shortages. Among them, McPherson said, are Mozambique, Kenya, Chad, Niger and Sudan.
The food will take an estimated two months to reach its destination. In most cases, the unprocessed wheat will be ground into flour, then cooked into bulgur and enriched with soymeal before leaving this country.
The wheat will be taken from reserves that accumulated as a result of President Jimmy Carter's 1980 grain embargo in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After imposition of the embargo, which Reagan lifted in 1981, Congress set up a 4 million-metric-ton reserve to help farmers who had lost their Soviet market.
Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block, who accompanied Reagan and McPherson at yesterday's ceremony, said the United States has ample grain to continue providing such aid even though the U.S. goal is "development, not dependency" for African nations.
"As we watch the television and see the newspaper accounts and magazine accounts of the hunger in the eyes of the children, mothers, families, and the heartbreak you see in the loss of life, we indeed appreciate the great blessing we have in this country," Block said. "We provide more food aid than all the rest of the countries of the world put together. That demonstrates our compassion and concern."
In the past, administration officials have blamed Ethiopia's Marxist government for poor distribution of food. But the White House sought to avoid political conflict yesterday. When spokesman Larry Speakes was asked if poor distribution was the reason for starvation in Ethiopia, he replied: "I don't think fault-finding at this point serves any purpose."