U.S. Accuses U.N. of Dragging Feet over Locusts

The United States accused the U.N. agriculture body recently of mismanaging the locust crisis afflicting vast swathes of West Africa.

ROME — The United States accused the U.N. agriculture body recently of mismanaging the locust crisis afflicting vast swathes of West Africa.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the Rome-based group had been slow to respond to the emergency, failing to put experts in the field and failing to allocate its funds properly.

"I think the ball has been dropped, and I'm disappointed by what I've seen, by this lack of urgency," ambassador Tony Hall said.

Speaking to reporters earlier, FAO Director General Jacques Diouf defended his organization's handling of the worst plague crisis in 15 years, saying the problem lay with donor countries failing to come through on cash pledges.

FAO experts say the locust emergency in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and Niger is expected to deteriorate over the next few weeks, with a serious risk that northwest Africa will be reinvaded by swarms of insects from October onwards.

A locust swarm can contain billions of insects and fly more than 3,500 km (2,175 miles) in a month. A small part of an average swarm eats as much food in one day as 2,500 people.

The U.N. believes that locusts have infested between 3 million and 4 million hectares of land — an area as large as the Netherlands — and destroyed up to 25 percent of summer harvests.

It says it needs $100 million to overcome the disaster.

Early Warning

The FAO first raised the alarm over the locust problem last October, but Diouf said by the start of last week he had received only $2 million in emergency funds. The United States has since provided a further $2 million, and Diouf said donor nations at a conference last Friday had promised $40 million. "The reaction in terms of pledges is positive ... but the pledges have to materialize," he told a news conference.

"We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Countries announce that they have allocated money from their budgets, and the affected areas say 'Come on FAO; do something.' As soon as money comes in we can spend it, but you can't invent money."

Hall said the United States gave FAO an initial grant of $800,000 last year to tackle the locusts but that as of last week, only half of that money had been spent.

Up until Sept. 1, FAO dispatched just two experts to West Africa and set up an emergency locust committee only last week, he added.

"Our people (in Africa) are telling us that the leadership is lacking down there and they want to see more action from the FAO," he said, warning that donors might decide in future to bypass the FAO and send funds direct to the afflicted nations.

The last plague crisis hit Africa in 1987-89 and cost some $500 million to bring under control. Since then, FAO has set up an early warning system to monitor locust populations.

Diouf said this system had worked well. "The trouble is that (nations) only tend to react when the crisis is right in front of them and the media is sending images (of swarms) back home."

Source: Reuters