LONDON – The World Food Program is so strapped for cash it has halved food rations for refugees in Sudan's wartorn Darfur region. Another U.N. agency has been forced to cut out measles vaccinations for children there.
Aid workers' pleas for money have gone unanswered, but some say they hope donations will come in now that the United States has stepped up its involvement and attention is being focused on getting a peace agreement soon.
"The fact that the World Food Program and other U.N. agencies and humanitarian organizations are having to scale back programs is deeply worrying, especially at a time when the conflict and insecurity is deteriorating rapidly," said Malcolm Fleming, spokesman for the British charity Oxfam. "Now is not the time to be cutting funds for humanitarian work in Darfur."
Aid agencies have been saying that for months. But donors may be distracted by other crises, including drought-induced hunger elsewhere in Africa. And after three years of war in Darfur, the world may be inured to the suffering in the vast, arid stretch of western Sudan.
Decades of low-level tribal clashes over land and water in Darfur erupted into large-scale fighting in early 2003. Sudan's Arab-dominated government denies accusations it responded to a rebellion among African farm villagers by unleashing Arab tribal militias on civilians.
Well over 180,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting or in a resulting crisis of hunger and disease. More than 2 million have fled their homes, many to neighboring countries where stability has been threatened by Darfur's chaos.
"This is the third year of a complex emergency in which a lot of resources have gone. There is a certain amount of donor fatigue," said Ted Chaiban, who heads Sudan operations for the U.N. Children's Fund.
But Chaiban said donors have been contacting him about providing funds since African Union negotiators set a deadline for Sudan's government and the Darfur rebels to agree on a peace deal, and after marches in the United States focused more attention on the humanitarian crisis.
The African Union's deadline has not yielded a peace treaty, but appears to have triggered an international push for a solution. Washington sent its No. 2 diplomat to the peace talks in Nigeria, and President Bush called Sudan's president this week to urge a peaceful settlement.
Chaiban hopes the increased attention will bring more help for aid agencies. "But there is an urgency. We need resources now," he added.
Soon, annual rains will make it difficult to get supplies to camps that house hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting in Darfur. UNICEF, which has received only 16 percent of the donations it requested for Darfur this year, has stopped some educational programs, cut back on supplies for its childhood malnutrition programs and stopped $18-a-child vaccinations against measles, a disease that can be fatal.
If additional money doesn't come by July, the agency will have to cut staff, Chaiban said.
Chaiban said UNICEF had requested $89 million in funding for this year and so far received only $15 million from international donors.
UNICEF and other agencies accept donations from the public, but rely mostly on major government donors.
In announcing its cuts in food rations last week, the World Food Program said it had received just $238 million, or 32 percent of the 746 million it needed to help feed more than 6 million people in Darfur and other Sudanese regions this year. Rations were being cut to as little as 1,050 calories, half an average person's minimum daily requirement.
"This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made," WFP director James Morris said last week. "Haven't the people of Darfur suffered enough? Aren't we adding insult to injury?"