Tackling root problems critical in famine response

A World Food Programme aircraft airdrops food supplies in Bentiu, South Sudan. Photo by: Isaac Billy / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Members of Congress on Thursday called for more political pressure to address the underlying conflicts that are creating famine and food insecurity and to ensure emergency aid is delivered.

At a House Foreign Affairs Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations subcommittee hearing, chairman Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, spoke of his recent trip to South Sudan and Uganda, where he met with aid workers who said that emergency relief and food aid is not enough.

“We need to do more,” he said. “We must focus on ending conflict.”

Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from California, echoed his sentiments. In addition to addressing immediate needs, the response to the current food security crises must also look at long-term interventions, he said.

“Unless we dedicate the time and resources to dealing with these root cause issues, to working with the nations in Africa to develop the infrastructure, to building the political systems to create stability and end this violent extremism and civil conflicts, we'll continue to see a repetition of the human suffering,” he said.

Tony P. Hall, a former ambassador and congressman who serves as executive director emeritus at the Alliance to End Hunger, spoke of successes over the past 30 years, but said that progress means trying to prevent future famines, not just addressing them as they arise.

“We’ve said never again too many times.”

He also pushed back against a foreign policy that would only provide aid to countries that are of strategic interest. “In an increasingly globalized world with migration in flux and the threat [of] extremism, there is no corner of world that is not strategically important,” Hall said.

Another issue raised at the hearing was the long-term impacts of severe hunger, namely stunting, which is estimated to translate to between an 8 and 12 percent loss of gross domestic product and about $3.5 trillion a year in lost productivity, higher health costs and reduced trade, said Roger Thurow, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“Emergency response and food aid are vital actions, but they alone won’t prevent the next famine,” he said, adding that the long-term agricultural investment is critical to that effort.

Julien Schopp, the director of humanitarian practice at InterAction, testified at the hearing about some of the critical challenges that field staff face in trying to deliver food aid — chief among them being access. In many cases, the security situation or government fiats make it too difficult to reach those who need assistance, he said. For instance, in Nigeria, the military dictates where aid workers can go; some NGOs suspect that there is greater need than is being reported by the government.

In other countries, meanwhile, NGOs report having difficulty obtaining work permits and visas, or being handed extra fees or travel restrictions that make their work difficult.

The South Sudanese proposal to charge $10,000 for aid worker permits was a key topic of discussion when Smith and Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, met with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit on their recent trip to South Sudan and Uganda. Smith said they pushed Kiir on aid worker security and urged him to rein in the military, whose soldiers have been accused of raping and killing civilians and aid workers, and disrupting aid convoys, preventing resources from reaching those most in need. In May, Kiir replaced his army chief, and the new chief, General James Ajongo Mawut, said the right things in their meeting, Smith said.

Congress backs famine relief, calls for political pressure on South Sudan

The United States House of Representatives passed a resolution urging stronger U.S. aid to resolve the famine in South Sudan. Experts meanwhile urged the U.S. and other governments to exert more pressure on political leaders to end the conflicts driving food insecurity.

On Wednesday, at a hearing about the foreign aid budget, Smith asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take action to pursue diplomatic solutions to the conflict in South Sudan.  

“So please, there needs to be an all out effort on South Sudan right now to act on this window of opportunity,” he said.

Tillerson responded that conflict is hampering the ability of the U.S. to deliver food aid and that as a result it will carry over some of the 2017 fiscal year funding, including the nearly $1 billion recently authorized for famine efforts.

“We are trying to work solutions in all areas,” he said, adding that the goal was to at least get humanitarian aid in while longer term solutions to conflict are hammered out.

A day later, at Thursday’s hearing, Bass said she was concerned about the pace of disbursement of the funds that Congress allocated and doesn’t want to see it carried over.  She called for NGOs or aid providers to communicate to the committee about if and when the money is received so they can apply pressure to the administration if need be.

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  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.