Perhaps, I thought, I had been wrong. We had arrived in the port of Djibouti to find a massive bulk carrier called The Vale unloading 30,000 tons of wheat for the famine-threatened people of the Horn of Africa. As giant cranes dropped grain into quayside hoppers, the sweating black stevedores beneath funnelled the food into white sacks lettered to show that this was a gift of the European Union. Perhaps all the criticism of tardiness by Western donors, and most particularly the EU, was ill-founded.
But then I noticed the number on the sacks. When was this batch pledged, I asked Amer Daoudi, the Jordanian logistics supremo for the Djibouti operation of the World Food Programme (WFP). The answer was September 1999. This delivery was not a swift response to a looming crisis. It was last year's promise, arriving eight months late.
It is continually bemusing to someone like me, who was in Ethiopia and the rest of the sub-Sahelian Africa throughout the terrible famine of 1985, to hear younger reporters asking: why has all this been allowed to happen again? Why has the Ethiopian government done nothing to prevent the crisis? For the truth is that the Ethiopians have done a lot, with early warning systems and strategic food reserves. Why, I wonder, does no one scrutinise with equal zeal the dissembling and blame-shifting claims of the Western donors when they airily imply that it is somehow all the fault of poor black governments.
There is a terrible ambiguity to the role of the Western world in a crisis like this. There is something deeply impressive about WFP operatives such as Amer Daoudi. Until two years ago, the independent state of Djibouti handled only 10 per cent of Ethiopia's imports. Today, because of the closure of the port of Assab in the border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, it must handle almost all the food aid that is urgently required.
Within a few weeks Amer has put in place a system that has increased Djibouti's daily off-load by 20 per cent. Now he is knocking down two warehouses to allow lorries to turn better. Next he will bring in an empty ship to moor alongside a small oil jetty to act as a "virtual berth" - to which aid ships can moor and drop off the loose grain. The scheme will increase productivity by another 35 per cent. The WFP is also working on improvements to road distribution which should enable the drought-hit regions to receive the 170,000 tons a month needed to prevent deaths from starvation.
But will this logistical feat be matched by those responsible for actually getting the food to Djibouti? Which is where we in Europe come in.
The standard EU procedure for sending food aid is this: first politicians and bureaucrats have rounds of meetings to reach a decision, then aid is pledged, then a confirmation is announced, then a tender is placed on the European market to buy the grain, then the tender is judged and awarded, then the successful bidder is given time to assemble and load it, then it is shipped. The shipping part takes around 20 days. But the rest of it takes around five months, at best, and sometimes far longer.
Contrast that with a bilateral cash donation made recently to the UN, which resulted in the WFP ringing round for the best price and availability - and a delivery of 16,000 tons of wheat scheduled to arrive from Turkey in Djibouti next week. The whole process took just five weeks.
The logic of this is unassailable - to those whose judgement is not clouded by domestic considerations such as using aid to subsidise their own industries by insisting that aid be tied to goods provided by the donor nation. Each ton of wheat being unloaded from The Vale cost just $135 to buy but $260 to transport. Buying more locally with cash donations would be cheaper as well as faster.
Small wonder then that Catherine Bertini, the UN Secretary General's special envoy in the Horn of Africa, has just appealed for more cash, rather than food in kind, from the international community.
The response of the European Union has to date been far from encouraging. At the recent EU-Africa summit in Cairo its development commissioner, Poul Nielsen, made a splendidly ambiguous statement about how Europe was making urgent plans, together with other donors, to send the 800,000 tons requested by Ethiopia. He was noticeably reticent on how much of that was pledged by the EU, and how much by "others".
To divert attention from such an awkward question, he then went on to say that the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea was hampering the relief effort, urging that the Ethiopian government must use all available transport to deliver food aid. The irony was that transport was not the problem. There was no food to shift. As he spoke, trucks were leaving Djibouti empty; after waiting all month in vain for the arrival of pledged food, they went off to seek work elsewhere.
Next an EU press release issued in Addis Ababa claimed that: "A first shipment of 30,000 tons of food aid has just arrived in Djibouti. This follows a decision by the European Commission to allocate another 60,000 tons of food aid for Ethiopia." This was misrepresentation of the first order. The arrival certainly "followed" the decision, but was not a result of it - it was just the wheat on The Vale, eight months late. No other EU delivery is currently scheduled by staff at the port (compared with fortnightly arrivals from the US from June onwards).
All of which left Ethiopia bewildered. "I have informal information suggesting that the EU may be on the verge of pledging a substantial amount of food aid," the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, told foreign journalists. But then Catherine Bertini disclosed that, though she had had a conversation with Poul Nielsen about plans to make a sizeable commitment: "they have yet to put that on paper." Official figures yesterday showed that, of the 836,800 tons Ethiopia needs, the EU has pledged a mere 55,240 tons - when the relief effort is still short of some 336, 683 tons needed for 16 million people on the brink of famine.
What confuses matters is that the EU sometimes includes in its figures the 80,000 tons it promised last year - and failed to deliver. In 1999 it sent little more than half what it promised, which is why the food security reserve set up by the Ethiopian government is at an all-time low. Agencies borrowed from it against written guarantees from donors that were not honoured. It has not been replenished. The EU is the prime culprit.
All this is not an isolated ineptitude. The European Commission's development arm routinely takes so long to process grant applications that aid agencies have to borrow the money from elsewhere, and often have spent it before official approval is given.
In Kosovo last June the EU pledged 350 million ecus to help returning refugees through the winter - and then had to reclassify the aid as "long-term reconstruction" when it became clear that winter would be long gone before the aid arrived. In Cambodia its food aid actually arrived when the crisis was over and the vulnerable had all died. In Somalia more recently it has landed UN workers in difficulties by refusing payments it had earlier agreed could be paid to local warlords. Its work in Ethiopia is beset by jostling between EU staff in its official delegation, in its emergency aid body, Echo, and the EU staff who work with the government in the food reserves.
The causes of the crisis in Ethiopia are complex. Global warming, war and under-development all play their part. But it ill-behoves bodies like the EU to point the finger. Rather it needs to turn its criticism on its own inept, top-heavy aid operation with its overpaid field staff, under-powered third-secretary level decision-making system and a bureaucracy impervious to the wishes of member states.
The urgency of this grows ever greater since, under the Treaty of Rome, efficient national aid operations in member states such as Britain are to find an increasing percentage of their budget handed over to the inefficient EU as the years pass. The case for root and branch reform in Brussels is becoming incontestable.