American warnings that Darfur is heading for an apocalyptic humanitarian catastrophe have been widely exaggerated by administration officials, it is alleged by international aid workers in Sudan. Washington’s desire for a regime change in Khartoum has biased their reports, it is claimed.
The government’s aid agency, USAID, says that between 350,000 and a million people could die in Darfur by the end of the year. Other officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have accused the Sudanese government of presiding over a ‘genocide’ that could rival those in Bosnia and Rwanda.
But the account has been comprehensively challenged by eyewitness reports from aid workers and by a new food survey of the region. The nutritional survey of Sudan’s Darfur region, by the UN World Food Programme, says that although there are still high levels of malnutrition among under-fives in some areas, the crisis is being brought under control.
‘It’s not disastrous,’ said one of those involved in the WFP survey, ‘although it certainly was a disaster earlier this year, and if humanitarian assistance declines, this will have very serious negative consequences.’
The UN report appears to confirm food surveys conducted by other agencies in Darfur which also stand in stark contrast to the dire US descriptions of the food crisis.
The most dramatic came from Andrew Natsios, head of USAID, who told UN officials: ‘We estimate right now, if we get relief in we’ll lose a third of a million people and, if we don’t, the death rates could be dramatically higher, approaching a million people.’
A month later, a second senior official, Roger Winter, USAID’s assistant administrator, briefed foreign journalists in Washington that an estimated 30,000 people had been killed during the on-going crisis in Darfur, with another 50,000 deaths from malnutrition and disease, largely among the huge populations fleeing the violence. He described the emergency as ‘humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude’.
By 9 September Powell was in front of the Congressional Foreign Relations Committee accusing Sudan of ‘genocide’, a charge rejected by officials of both the European and African Unions and also privately by British officials.
‘I’ve been to a number of camps during my time here,’ said one aid worker, ‘and if you want to find death, you have to go looking for it. It’s easy to find very sick and under-nourished children at the therapeutic feeding centres, but that’s the same wherever you go in Africa.’
Another aid worker told The Observer : ‘It suited various governments to talk it all up, but they don’t seem to have thought about the consequences. I have no idea what Colin Powell’s game is, but to call it genocide and then effectively say, “Oh, shucks, but we are not going to do anything about that genocide” undermines the very word “genocide”.’
While none of the aid workers and officials interviewed by The Observer denied there was a crisis in Darfur – or that killings, rape and a large-scale displacement of population had taken place – many were puzzled that it had become the focus of such hyperbolic warnings when there were crises of similar magnitude in both northern Uganda and eastern Congo.
Concern about USAID’s role as an honest broker in Darfur have been mounting for months, with diplomats as well as aid workers puzzled over its pronouncements and one European diplomat accusing it of ‘plucking figures from the air’.
Under the Bush administration, the work of USAID has become increasingly politicised. But over Sudan, in particular, two of its most senior officials have long held strong personal views. Both Natsios, a former vice-president of the Christian charity World Vision, and Winter have long been hostile to the Sudanese government.