by William Lambers on Jul 30, 2011
Children are starving to death in East Africa. Famine has overwhelmed aid agencies. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says that more than 11 million people desperately need life-saving food aid.
Will Americans respond? History suggests that they will.
America has a long and deep humanitarian tradition of responding to the cries of the hungry, wherever they may be. We saw that in Haiti following the massive earthquake there in 2010. But American humanitarianism has a history that reaches much farther back.
Ninety years ago an appeal for help came from famine-ravaged Russia. Russia had been struck by a massive drought. Millions were forced to flee their communities in search of food, but there was little to find. A letter published by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky pleaded for bread and medicine for children.
Herbert Hoover, then U.S. secretary of commerce, responded.
Hoover quickly gained support from Congress to buy surplus corn from American farmers to send to Russia. He also rallied the support of charities across America.
At that time America had struggles of its own, with millions of unemployed for whom Hoover was organizing relief. The media of that day, newspapers, helped to get the Russian appeal distributed across the country. Life-saving shipments of food were soon on the way to starving Russians.
Similarly, the current East Africa crisis is the result of months of drought and poor harvests. Many in Somalia have fled to Kenya and Ethiopia in the desperate search for food and water. It is a dangerous trek. They encounter wild animals and bandits. The word desperation is an understatement when it comes to the plight of Somali refugees.
The first challenge the international community faces is to gather enough resources to feed the millions of hungry. The World Food Programme, the leading hunger-fighting agency, is well short of the funding it needs. WFP and other agencies are issuing appeals and seeking donations from governments and the public.
Will the world's leader in fighting hunger, the United States, be able to rally support for this famine relief, as Hoover did 90 years ago? America right now is not in the best of financial circumstances, and members of Congress have called for cuts in international food aid to help balance the budget.
There are complications to relief efforts in the region as well. The worst of the famine zone is within Southern Somalia, an area controlled by Al-Shabab, a militant organization with ties to Al Qaeda. They have not cooperated with aid agencies to allow food distribution in areas they control. There are also logistical problems in moving food in the region.
When Americans came to Russia's aid in 1921, they had to contend with the Communists who were skilled at putting up roadblocks to the delivery of aid. A failed system of railroads held up distribution of food. Skilled negotiations between the American Relief Administration and their suspicious Communist hosts were necessary in order to proceed. Today, aid in the famine-afflicted areas of Southern Somalia will depend on gaining cooperation of Al-Shabab.
While the top priority right now is rushing emergency aid into East Africa, we must also look ahead: We cannot let this happen again.
Since the time of the Russian famine, better methods of predicting famine outbreaks have been developed. These warning systems are in place and they work — but only if people respond.
As drought conditions began to unfold months ago in East Africa, the World Food Programme put out warnings. WFP asked for donations for their programs in the region. Had donors come through, this crisis would not be as great.
Anticipating famine was a theme that Hoover emphasized in 1946 when President Harry Truman sent him on a 38-nation tour as a food ambassador. The idea was to prevent famine from striking 800 million people after World War II. The key was to stay ahead of a potentially gigantic disaster.
Food supplies were gathered and child feeding was emphasized. At the United Nations this effort led to the creation of UNICEF. Meanwhile, a Famine Emergency Committee was formed in the United States to promote conservation of food. The government and the public became engaged in global hunger relief efforts. This saved many a country from descending into the pit of famine after World War II.
We need that same type of attention to hunger today. For if we do not stay a step ahead of hunger, the risks are enormous. Today, East Africa is suffering from famine. Who is next?
William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book "Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World" (2009).