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Volume 36, Number 1January/February 1985

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Cake For the Poor

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Michael J. Isaac

In November last year, six Arabian Gulf countries again committed their impressive financial forces to the 1980's fight against famine when Muhammad Aba al-Khail, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Finance and National Economy, announced that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (See Aramco World, January-February 1984) would put up the lion's share of a $1 billion fund being organized by the World Bank to combat hunger in Africa.

This funding - from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - was not the first large gift of cash from the Arab world to Africa's starving peoples in 1984; earlier in the year Saudi Arabia, acting alone, donated $185 million to help pay the cost of transporting food, drilling wells and installing pumps in stricken areas of the African continent.

The kingdom had also put up $30 million for the Sahel countries and $45 million for food aid in Eritrea, The Sudan and Somalia and Chad. In addition, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Fund for International Development - to which Gulf countries are key contributors - approved a special grant of $5 million for the African food crises, according to year-end reports in Middle East Newsletters.

Some aid in the Gulf has been more personal than national. Shaikha Fatima, wife of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, personally hired four transport planes to ferry food and medical supplies to Africa, according to wire service dispatches. All this aid, sadly, was voted or provided almost exactly 10 years after the United Nations-affiliated Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) - alarmed by the 1973 famine in Africa - formally resolved at a meeting in Rome that "within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry, no family will fear for its next day's bread, no human being's future and capacities will be stunted by malnutrition."

Since then, an overlapping network of world organizations has tried hard to fulfill that promise. But - according to a recent report from Compass News Features, a Third World agency - most of their efforts have failed. Though agricultural output has increased in the last 10 years, Compass said, most of the increase is in export crops - resulting in a net drop in food grown for local people.

Some successes have been reported, Compass continued. One example is the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to which Saudi Arabia, with $155 million in 1982-84, is the second largest donor after the United States. Since it was set up - at the suggestion of petroleum exporting countries after the 1974 conference - IFAD (See Aramco World, May-June 1978) has lent some $2 billion to finance projects in 83 countries that have helped produce an additional 20 million tons of food.

On the other hand, IFAD itself is in danger of being phased out, and the drought of the 1980's has wiped out whatever gains have been made. Though theories - and disputes - abound on why efforts to fight famine have failed, no one really is sure. But whatever the reason, says Non-Government Organizations, a federation representing unofficial groups and agencies in some 50 countries, all governments must now try to provide land, credit and seeds to farmers in the stricken areas. Otherwise, NCO says, starvation can be expected in other regions as well as in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the victims must rely on such organizations as the World Food Program (WFP) which was set up in 1962 as a joint undertaking with FAO, to channel contributions of both cash and food into the drought-ravaged regions and other areas where hunger, for any reason, is a problem.

Though cash contributions are vital, donations of food supplies are also important - and Saudi Arabia is supplying food to WFP too. In the 1985-86 biennium, for example, half of its $55 million pledge was to be fulfilled with a familiar food from the Arabian Peninsula - dates.

In situations like the Ethiopian and Chad famines, WFP tries to provide such staple foods as grains - wheat and maize (corn) - vegetable oils and milk; it is a WFP policy to provide, within the limits of what is available, food to which the people are accustomed, since even hungry people have been known to reject completely unfamiliar foods.

"Our first concern," said Langdon S. Smith of WFP's Resources Planning Branch, "is to get as much staple food to the people as we can ship in. Since we have limited money and serious shortages of transport and storage, we concentrate on making the smallest amount go as far as possible - as the staple foods do."

Whenever the needs are less urgent, however, WFP attempts to put together what Smith called "a complete food basket," in an interview with Aramco World magazine in December. WFP's efforts to feed Afghani refugees in Pakistan is an example, Smith said. Because the urgency is less, WFP can pinpoint sources of perhaps less familiar, but still nourishing food, and has more time to organize transport - one of the problems WFP faced in getting food into the mouths of the hungry in Ethiopia.

One such food - and an important component in the "food basket" put together for Pakistan and Somalia - is the Saudi Arabian date, a fruit that in some ways is very nearly the ideal food for hungry refugees and the populations of developing countries. The ruzaiz date, for example, if properly packed - or dried - can be stored without refrigeration, and because it has a high sugar content - 75 per cent - seldom harbors bacteria. The date, furthermore is an extremely hearty fruit. One kilogram of dates (2.2 pounds) provides more than 3,000 calories, while the same amount of grapes offers just 800. And, the Riyadh daily newspaper al-Riyadh reported recently, "a daily intake of 16 dates will provide the daily human requirement of magnesium, manganese, copper and sulfur; half the needs of iron, and a quarter of potassium and calcium." Because the date is so nourishing it has earned a popular Saudi name: "the cake of the poor."

Saudi Arabia's donations of dates to the WFP are utilized for long-term rural development programs. In these projects, the dates are "mixed with other basic commodities" as part of a package of food and cash going not to starving peoples, but to workers trying to prevent starvation - workers for example, building irrigation facilities. WFP Resources Management Division Director Eberhard Luehe called that portion of the program "meaningful food aid" because of the long-range boost it could give to a community's economic welfare. Countries receiving dates for such projects have included Morocco, North and South Yemen, The Sudan, Uganda, Lesotho, Djibouti and Zambia.

Luehe said it was not unusual for the WFP to receive food contributions from donor countries. To the contrary, he said, current regulations stipulate that contributions "should consist of at least one third in cash and one third in commodities, and at present, the World Food Program is receiving the larger portion of donations in food."

All of the dates donated to the program by Saudi Arabia are packed at a new, automated plant in the heart of one of the kingdom's date-producing capitals: al-Hasa Oasis in the Eastern Province. Production during the recently concluded season totaled some 17,000 tons - all of it earmarked for the needy. One of two such facilities in the country, this plant was built by the Ministry of Agriculture and Water and opened in the fall of 1981. The second big automated plant in the kingdom is in Medina, but the dates packed there are sold.

The dates are moved into the plant proper via six cleaning and washing conveyor belts. They are then graded, washed, air-dried and packed. On the way, the six initial lines have fed the bouncing brown fruit onto a dozen drying and packing lines. Each conveyor line is manned by 21 to 30 workers.

Finally, the dates are shot down a chute in 20-kilogram loads and into open-mouthed boxes, each marked with the Saudi emblem - crossed swords with the date palm between - and green lettering saying: Saudi Arabian Contribution to the World Food Program. Next they are placed on 20-box pallets wrapped in plastic and then fork-lifted into cold storage rooms. Later, they are trucked 150 kilometers to the Arabian Gulf port of Dammam (93 miles) and dispatched to recipient countries.

The kingdom's own long-range agricultural strategy is tied closely to the new plant's operation. It is a strategy aimed not only at providing food for the needy in developing nations, but in reinvigoraring a key part of Saudi Arabia's natural agriculture. The government, for instance, pays $1.00 per kilogram for dates packed at the al-Hasa factory, up sharply, from what dates would have fetched in the marketplace a few years ago. The government also gives a small subsidy for every kilogram of dates a farmer produces, and pays $14 for every new date-palm tree planted; this is to encourage farmers to start new groves or expand their current operations.

The subsidy along with new research into date cultivation and the operation of the new plant has brought a minor renaissance to that agricultural sector, according to officials of the al-Hasa Irrigation and Drainage Authority (HIDA), an arm of the ministry which operates the date plant.

"These days, farmers are pushing hard," noted HIDA Assistant Director General Ibrahim al-Sowayigh, referring in particular to date-palm cultivators. "They are really working."

The kingdom's strategy is geared "to help the poor people and to help the farmers," he said. "And now, at least, people can see what Saudi Arabia is giving."

That, certainly, is something those involved in the day-to-day operation of the al-Hasa date factory are proud of. These dates, said a HIDA engineer, at the plant since operation began, "carry the name of Saudi Arabia all over the world." More important, they're now helping to save lives in the fight against famine.

Arthur Clark, a writer based in Dhahran, is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the January/February 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1985 images.