Remarks by USAID Deputy Administrator Donald K. Steinberg to the Congressional Hunger Caucus

Thursday, August 4, 2011
Briefing on the Famine Crisis in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Response and the Challenges Ahead

Mr. Chairman: Thank you for your leadership in bringing us together today to address the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. Your attention and concern is critical.

The drought in the Horn is the worst in 60 years and it is now affecting 12.5 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. It's both a humanitarian and a security crisis, as famine has been declared in parts of southern Somalia and refugees are pouring across borders into drought-stressed areas of Kenya and Ethiopia.

A few weeks back, I traveled throughout the region, including South Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia. In South Sudan, I felt the joy of 100,000 people celebrating their dream of an independent state. The next day, in Ethiopia, I shared the tragedy of 100,000 Somalis refugees in Dollo Ado, driven from their homes by drought, war, and emerging famine. Families - mostly women cradling children whose glazed-over eyes had already seen a lifetime of hardship - struggled into the camps after their long exodus through the Ogaden desert and received their first nutritious meals in months.

They're joined in flight by even greater numbers fleeing to Kenya in search of food, water and security, as crops and livestock wither and villages are attacked. And they're the lucky ones. Tragically, those who leave are the ones with the strength and resources to do so. The weakest and most vulnerable are often left behind.

While the recent surge has found the international humanitarian community racing to keep up, we've long been at work to prepare for and address this tragedy. Last summer, the USAID-supported Famine Early Warning System (FEWS-Net) used satellite imagery and other techniques to predict this crisis, and we responded by pre-positioning food and other supplies in Djibouti, Kenya, and South Africa.

Shortly thereafter, our ambassadors in the region declared disasters in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, unlocking the door to more life-saving assistance. Since October 2010, we've provided about $460 million worth of assistance, including 360,000 metric tons of food.

And it's not just food: since disease is the leading cause of death for young children, we're stressing public health interventions, such as therapeutic feeding focused on children, vaccinations, and access to clean water and sanitation.

We're now focused on three inter-locking challenges in the Horn.

First, we are enhancing our aggressive and coordinated response to the immediate emergency. Working with the World Food Program, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, private groups, and donors, we need to ensure shelter, food and health not only for refugees streaming into Kenya and Ethiopia, but for people in other regions - like northeast Kenya - where severe malnutrition is rampant, and in Somalia itself.

In parts of Somalia, a so-called "perfect storm" of seasons of failed rainfall, decades of conflict, and unconscionable denial of access by al-Shabaab have brought soaring food prices, livestock death, crop failure, severe malnutrition and massive population displacement.

About 300 children under the age of five are dying each day in southern Somalia, and that number could rise as 3.2 million people in Somalia require immediate, life-saving humanitarian assistance, mostly in the regions of lower Shabelle and Bakool.

Through the World Food Program and other donors and NGOs, we're testing aggressively all options for delivering assistance in southern Somalia, where relief operations were halted because of deteriorating security and bans imposed by al-Shabaab. We again call on al-Shabaab to end their harassment, extortion and threats to relief workers, and stop holding starving people as de facto hostages.

We're also encouraging the broader international community to step forward with additional assistance as we address this sobering challenge.

Second, we're helping communities confront the drought and extreme food insecurity. For example, in Ethiopia, we're supporting a government-led "safety net" program through food and cash for work programs to provide boreholes, construct and staff health clinics, and support nutrition education and sanitation projects.

In the drought of 2002-3, more than 13 million Ethiopians needed emergency relief. By contrast, that number to date is less than 5 million. Thus, more than 8 million people have been saved from a pattern of destitution and permanent reliance of international largesse.

Equally important, we're working with governments and people in the region to create sustainable food security by strengthening agriculture and rural development. President Obama's innovative "Feed the Future" initiative is already at work in Kenya and Ethiopia to expand agriculture output, build strong markets and transport infrastructure, and bring new technology and innovation to these countries. We're pressing governments to adopt transparent, market-oriented plans coordinated with local populations. In most cases, we're fortunately pushing on an open door.

One more point: we're insisting that women be front and center in all these efforts, ensuring that they are not just as victims, but keys to the solution. We're involving women as planners, beneficiaries and beneficiaries of our programs, including an emphasis on relief to pregnant and lactating women and on projects to prevent and stop disturbing reports of sexual violence.

Mr. Chairman: Time is not on our side. Based on FEWS-Net data, we do not expect a significant harvest in the south for another six months. The next potential rains are in October in the south Somalia, and even if there are good rains, we could experience another wave of mortality due to water-borne disease and livestock death. Unfortunately, the situation is going to worsen before it gets better. Just today, the U.N. announced that famine conditions have spread to three more regions in southern Somalia.

In conclusion, beyond our humanitarian impulses, our work in the Horn of Africa is driven by national security needs. Parts of the Horn are now breeding grounds for terrorists who threaten the region and our homeland. They're havens for pirates who attack international shipping lanes; they're creating large numbers of refugees who could undermine stability of key regional actors; and they could serve as a transit point for pandemic diseases and trafficking in arms, drugs and people. By addressing the humanitarian crisis and by building stable, food secure countries, we're not only responding to our humanitarian instincts but we're also protecting the safety, security and interests of the American people as well. Nothing could be more important. Thank you.

Last updated: September 19, 2017

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