- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2000

''Always, we have to be dying in thousands," said Graca Machel, the Mozambican wife of Nelson Mandela, about the havoc wrought by the flood in her native country in the past month. "When we are dying in thousands, then they come running. It's always too late," she said. The tragedy has affected 2 million people, with 250,000 displaced or without homes, women forced to give birth in the treetops, and the death toll likely to reach several thousand, according to President Joaquim Chissano. Preliminary surveys suggest at least half of all the children rescued were unaccompanied, indicating their parents were either killed by the flood or separated from them. While an entire country waited for aid, seven helicopters tried to help 12,000 people stranded in up to 36 feet of water atop utility poles, trees and rooftops. And until last week, the country only had one helicopter to do the job. Surely the international community can do better than that.
Relief efforts didn't begin in earnest until Monday, more than a week after a wall of water emptied into the Limpopo River valley from Zimbabwe. The slow response seemed to mock a U.S. administration that has touted its special concern for Africa. But the United States wasn't the only one with a procrastination problem. In London, infighting between the Ministry of Defense and the Department for International Development prevented four Puma helicopters from taking off because the two ministries couldn't decide who would foot the bill. While the United States and the rest of the international community can't make up for time and lives lost during that period of confusion, Uncle Sam's rescue package for Mozambique is a formidable one: 600 military personnel, six C-130 military cargo planes, six heavy-lift helicopters, and a promise to forgive the rest of Mozambique's bilateral U.S. debt (less than $2 million, according to the Boston Globe).
For the sake of Mozambique's recovery over the long-term, however, it will need relief from its multilateral foreign debt which Reuters reported now amounts to around $5 billion. Congress is currently considering the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which would help regional banks in poor countries like Mozambique reduce their debt after they have used all the country's resources. The United States' share in the fund, which was started by the largest industrial nations last year in Cologne, Germany, is 4 percent of the total $28 billion, said Tom Hart of the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations. This year's supplemental budget request for the U.S. share of the fund is $210 million. If the fund is approved by the United States and other nations, Mozambique's weekly debt payment would be reduced from $2 million to $1.2 million, the Boston Globe report said. This could turn money being used to pay off a debt into funds to be used for reconstruction and other relief purposes.
"For Mozambique, debt relief means flood relief," Bishop Thomas Shaw, the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts said at a news conference this week with Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers and chairman of the Banking Committee Jim Leach. "For every dollar the U.S. contributes, $27 is raised among other creditors, and $90 of debt relief is realized."
While blanket Third-World debt relief makes no sense in the absence of good government and economic reform, Mozambique's recent economic improvements bode well for the proper use of this money: All banks in Mozambique are now privatized; it removed additional investment restrictions last year, and corruption is being rooted out from the customs department, according to the Heritage Foundation's 2000 Index of Economic Freedom. The flood also comes just after the Economist Intelligence Unit had indicated Mozambique would likely have the highest growth rate in Africa this year.
The world has already seen what waiting can do to a country equipped with little more than a single helicopter and some tall trees when disaster hits. The United States can do its part to make sure Mozambique will be better prepared next time.

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