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U.S. mum on global hunger crisis, sends officials to assess East African drought

(Credit: Juan Andrés Del Puerto Gonzalez/flickr)

Two officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are traveling to East Africa this week to meet with governments and humanitarian actors about the emerging hunger crises in the region. They arrive at a time when $4.4 billion is needed to help some 20 million people, and the Trump administration is seeking to cut the foreign aid budget.

Counselor Thomas Staal will spend the next two weeks in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. The focus of the trip is to hold meetings about the drought and to promote the Power Africa initiative. A separate trip by Acting Assistant Administrator Gregory Gottlieb includes stops in Switzerland and Saudi Arabia before arriving in East Africa. Gottlieb will also meet with humanitarian groups, government officials and citizens about the drought.

“His visit, which comes as USAID continues scaling up emergency assistance in the region, will focus on the international humanitarian response and strengthening national capacity to respond to this and future crises,” said the media advisory announcing his trip.

The U.S. contributed more than $600 million in food assistance over the past year to South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, Food for Peace Acting Director Matt Nims said in testimony to the House last week. Nims and Gottlieb told Congress about the historic scale of the problem and described how the U.S. is joining the growing global response.

“We are never focusing on just one country or region at a time, and the scale and nature of humanitarian crises in the world right now strain the capacities of the humanitarian system,” said Nims. “The United States cannot do it alone – we need all our United Nations, NGO, affected government and donor partners working together to tackle these challenges.”

Food distribution in Pakistan. (USAID/Pakistan/flickr)

Their calls for cooperation and to do more stand in contrast with the White House’s stance. The administration’s budget proposal for next year seeks to cut the State Department’s budget by 36 percent. USAID, which falls under State, absorbs the majority of the cuts. Additional savings come through cuts or reductions of payments to some U.N. programs, including the Global Climate Change Initiative and peacekeeping.

Two weeks earlier, the head of the U.N. called for $4.4 billion by the end of March “to avert catastrophe” in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Drought and conflict in the countries leave an estimated 20 million people of dying from hunger in six months if nothing is done.

The European Union, Canada and other donor countries responded by pledging additional funds for the response. They still are nowhere close to meeting the financial needs. Donors have provided $900 million for the four countries, according to U.N. figures. That is less than one-quarter of the immediate need and all of that money is not dedicated to addressing hunger. With the immediate needs underfunded, the likelihood of raising the $5.6 billion needed for 2017 is virtually impossible.

“The world is facing multiple crises simultaneously. War and terrorism have displaced more people from their homes than at any time since World War II. Separately, famine has been declared in one region, and there are potentially three other famines looming,” said Gawain Kripke, Oxfam America policy director, in a statement reacting to the White House budget proposal. “The idea that America would slash life-saving foreign aid at this moment is unconscionable. America has always stood with the oppressed, helped victims, fed the hungry, rebuilt better.”

Aside from the proposed budget cuts, the U.S. has said little publicly about the crisis. It took the congressional testimonies to get more details about the nature of the U.S. response, but the topic has yet to be mentioned by the White House. Other aid groups joined Oxfam in criticizing the proposed cuts, saying they are the opposite of what the U.S. needs to do in the face of famine.

“What funding exists for the drought response has, in large part, been private funding,” Michael Bowers, vice president of humanitarian leadership and response at Mercy Corps, said in testimony before the House last week. “We have been able to do little in response to the drought, other than some limited water trucking and water infrastructure work. If we fail to respond now, we risk a much larger and costly emergency response later, with too many lives lost in the meantime.”

The fact that two USAID officials are traveling to the affected areas may signal more U.S. engagement in the crisis. But the USAID remains leaderless, and there is no indication that Trump plans to fill the position anytime soon.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]