Food shortages in southern Africa are reaching alarming proportions. The World Food Program, or WFP, says tens of millions of people in six countries — Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho and Swaziland — face starvation as a result of disastrous crop failures. The U.N. agency is calling for $500 million in emergency food aid, but so far only a fourth of that amount is said to have been collected.

The famine has been caused by a combination of natural and human factors. The biggest reason is water shortages because of drought. Government corruption and policy errors have also played a part. What’s more, the spread of AIDS has caused serious labor shortages and disrupted life in rural communities. About one out of three adults is said to be infected with HIV in southern African states.

In Malawi, government officials reportedly have lined their pockets by selling off about 167,000 tons of reserve food overseas. In Zimbabwe, the government of President Robert Mugabe has created chaos in agriculture by seizing highly productive white-owned farms while keeping food prices unreasonably low. Moreover, his authoritarian regime has obstructed international food aid to residents supporting opposition parties.

International relief is essential to defuse the food crisis, but it is not enough. It is also critical to provide good governance and eradicate the scourge of AIDS. Without these efforts, countries in southern Africa will likely continue to suffer recurring food shortages. The international community needs to do everything it can to help them.

There is an upside to the African situation: an increasing tendency toward resolving armed conflicts. Protracted fighting lies at the root of many of the problems that afflict Africa — poverty, environmental degradation and AIDS, to name just a few examples. Without enduring peace, Africa cannot achieve sustainable development.

So the spate of peace initiatives in countries as different as Sierra Leone, Sudan, Congo (former Zaire) and Angola are encouraging. In Angola, the warring factions reached a peace agreement in April, putting an end to a civil war that had plagued the West African state ever since it became independent from Portugal in 1975.

In July, Sudan’s government and rebel forces agreed on a peace plan, while the civil war in Congo came to a halt with a mutual troop withdrawal agreement between the Joseph Kabila regime and neighboring Rwanda. The two sides also agreed not to support antigovernment forces in the other’s country.

But peace is far from assured. In the past, ceasefire agreements were reached, sometimes with the help of the United Nations, but sooner or later they were broken. That must not be repeated. The peace efforts now under way must be fostered and brought to fruition with the unanimous backing of the international community.

This year is an opportune time to build momentum for peace. In July, 53 African states launched a new regional body, the African Union, to replace the 38-year-old Organization of African Unity. The AU, modeled on the European Union, has pledged to revive Africa through conflict resolution and economic growth.

The U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opens next Monday in Johannesburg, South Africa, is also a golden opportunity to discuss Africa’s possibilities. Representing Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi are scheduled to attend the nine-day meeting, the sequel to the landmark Earth Summit, or the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, held a decade ago in Rio de Janeiro.

Foreign Minister Kawaguchi is also expected to visit Angola, which in many ways represents the plight of war-ravaged Africa. Safety in the republic is threatened by numerous land mines, numbering 20 million by some estimates. The existence of millions of refugees and domestically displaced people is also creating serious problems. Ms. Kawaguchi certainly will have a great deal to learn from the tour.

Africa remains a region of high priority on Japan’s foreign-aid agenda. With African states stepping up development efforts, this nation should respond more actively to their aspirations. It is particularly important for the Foreign Ministry — which has seen its image badly tarnished in recent months by corruption scandals and policy blunders — to recalibrate its African diplomacy. Having no negative legacies of history in Africa, such as slavery and colonization, Japan is in a good position to give hands-off assistance to developing nations in that vast region of the world.

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