About six months into my tenure as Director of Food for Peace, in July 2011, I remember calling Nancy Lindborg, the Assistant Administrator of our Bureau, to let her know that famine had been officially declared in Somalia. It was with an air of both sadness and disbelief that I myself absorbed the news that we had actually reached this point. I had left the world of humanitarian aid for development and governance work in the mid-1990s, shortly after one of the most intense periods of my working life, responding to the 1991 Somalia famine. I was in the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in those years, and we broke records by mounting the largest-ever (at that time) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in the office’s history and spending more on a single disaster in a short span of time than the office ever had before. As a member of USAID’s DART in Somalia, I witnessed the crisis firsthand. I traveled with Fred Cuny, a great humanitarian, as he shared his insights into the nature of famine and the challenges of response. As the months unfolded and relief operations ramped up with the support of the U.S. military, names of towns like Belet Huen, Baidoa, Merca and Kismayo all became commonplace, as did the terrible images of starving children and sprawling graveyards.
We learned a lot from that famine response, and looking back I can say that we played it smarter this time around. Recognizing that mortality rates often spike due to outbreaks of preventable diseases, USAID prioritized health and hygiene programs such as vaccination campaigns and providing clean water and hand washing soap before the rainy season, when disease rates are known to spike. Much improved early warning systems gave us a clear picture of both nutritional needs and market prices. Based on this information, we prioritized cash and voucher programs that allowed people to stay in their villages and buy food and other supplies in their local markets. We found that markets did indeed respond to the increase in demand, inflation was kept at bay, and traders brought goods to areas that were off limits or too dangerous for aid workers.
The in-kind food distributions we supported through the United Nations World Food Program WFP) were also smarter. Thanks to the early warnings received from the experts at Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) and Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU), our food aid was already pre-positioned in the region. WFP largely set aside general food distributions, which are often chaotic at best and violent at worst. Instead WFP focused on more efficiently reaching those in need by working together with health facilities to provide families with food aid, and if needed, supplementary nutrition. For many years USAID has been providing funds for partners to purchase ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to help those in crisis, but for the first time ever, Food for Peace provided an RUTF that it helped create. And we now have RUTF in our stockpiles.
While the food security conditions in Somalia have improved, our response this past year reflects our understanding of the fragility of the situation: Along with our partners, we are continuing to provide assistance that saves lives while also protecting and advancing livelihoods.
Last night I attended a celebration in honor of Senator George McGovern’s 90th birthday. He was feted with toasts that acknowledged his extraordinary contributions to feeding hungry children around the world. As an American citizen and public servant, I am proud to be part of the U.S. government effort that stays true to the spirit of Senator McGovern’s vision. In far flung and difficult places, including Somalia, we make a difference and make evident every day the compassion and generosity of the American people.