In 2011, drought struck the Horn of Africa, but the humanitarian response came too late: A quarter of a million people lost their lives in Somalia. Last year, a combination of conflict and drought again threatened millions, but timely humanitarian action by national governments and the international community, including the United States, averted the worst. Warning lights are again flashing across East Africa. It is time for President Trump, the Congress and other world leaders to respond.
I have just returned from South Sudan, one of the front lines of this looming crisis. This is a country where the average age is less than eighteen years old, and children have indeed borne the brunt of more than five years of civil conflict, brutal violence, economic decline, and climate change. There is good news and bad news, but the bottom line is unequivocally clear for those committed to the humanitarian imperative of saving lives. The international community must again prepare to help South Sudanese children and families — and others across the Horn — who don’t have enough food to eat. 2018 threatens to be even more challenging than 2017.
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First, some good news. Humanitarian action in 2017 stopped localized famine in the north, and the largest cholera outbreak ever in South Sudan has been contained. Despite a lack of resources, state, county, and local officials I met earlier this month, were engaged in highlighting the needs of their communities and frankly acknowledged the importance of international help. Programs run by Save the Children and other humanitarian organizations are saving lives and making a real difference.
When I met with community leaders in a village in Kapoeta in the Eastern part of the country, they emphasized how the program of training and equipping community health workers — funded by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance — has saved children from dying of malaria and pneumonia, and improved their nutrition.
Finally, although the results are still very mixed, last month the parties to the conflict declared a formal cessation of hostilities and there is a political process underway through the High Level Revitalization Forum to seek a more durable peace.
But huge challenges remain. By late 2017, the number of people on the verge of famine had almost doubled compared to 2016. Last year, one-third of the population was severely food insecure; projections for this year show close to half. That means 5.7 million people will need food and livelihoods support. Officials from World Food Programme told me they were prepositioning supplies in what is their largest operation in the world, but they are worried about having a sufficient pipeline.
At an outpatient therapeutic feeding program I visited in Kapoeta, our staff spoke about increasing numbers of children under two being diagnosed and prescribed nutrient rich therapeutic peanut paste to stave off life-threatening malnutrition. The malnutrition ward I saw in the Torit state hospital was relatively empty, but officials expressed concern it could again become packed as happened only last spring.
Despite the best of intentions I observed at the local level where the challenges are most stark, government capacity is severely constrained. Limited resources and conflict have meant that salaries are not paid — the senior officials in Torit, for example, told me they had been paid only through last July, and that installment only arrived last month.
Finally, despite a national directive issued last November on access for humanitarian assistance and the cessation of hostilities agreement in December, there are many obstacles and complications that constrain the ability of humanitarian agencies to reach rapidly all communities in need across the country.
The U.S. government — both the executive branch and Congress — with others must get ready to mount another big humanitarian effort. This is not the time to back away from the substantial investment the U.S. has made through numerous administrations to improve the lives of the people of South Sudan. There is no doubt that much more needs to be done to accelerate progress toward a comprehensive, durable peace — something that everyone I met viewed as a precondition for any sustainable improvement. But our commitment to save the lives of millions of South Sudanese should not be constrained by those politics. Humanitarian agencies such as Save the Children know what is required, use proven methods that can be scaled and have experience working in conflict environments to ensure communities in need are protected and receive the assistance they need.
Providing assistance also aligns with America’s longstanding commitment to help alleviate suffering around the world, especially the scale of suffering we are witnessing in East Africa. Our humanitarian actions testify to our moral authority and affect our standing in Africa and elsewhere. Moreover, the U.S. has viewed the Horn of Africa, at least from the time of the Reagan administration onwards, as an area of strategic importance. Both Republican and Democratic administrations have invested humanitarian resources and diplomatic leadership.
Preventing famine in South Sudan is not a simple task, but American leadership can make a critical difference. The hunger crisis in the region reflects a complex, lethal combination of persistent drought, conflict, and governance challenges that requires a sophisticated response to enable East Africa to turn the corner in a sustainable way. That means a combination of substantial humanitarian assistance — stepped up efforts by the international community and uninhibited access provided by the government and other parties — and diplomacy, not one conditioned by the other. The mothers, children, and communities I met with are counting on us.