Washington — Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, has led a U.S. delegation to the Horn of Africa to mobilize a global response to the region's worst drought in more than 60 years, which the United Nations estimates has left at least 12.4 million people in urgent need of food, water and medical care.
"The visit was important in terms of shedding light on the important efforts that are under way and the importance of continued support from the international community," Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz said during an August 9 State Department briefing on the trip. Schwartz and Biden were joined on the visit by representatives from across the U.S. government, including U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah, Special Assistant to the President Gayle Smith and former Senator Bill Frist.
The group's August 8 visit came as President Obama approved an additional $105 million for humanitarian relief efforts, money the White House said will help fund "the urgently needed food, health, shelter, water and sanitation assistance for those who desperately need help" across the region.
Biden's trip "underscored the commitment of the U.S. government - the single largest donor in the region - to respond to the immediate crisis with life-saving assistance and investments in long-term solutions to hunger," Shah said in a USAID release August 9. "Ultimately, we know that it is smarter and cheaper to invest in food security than face the consequences of famine and food riots."
To demonstrate U.S. support for agricultural development in the region, Biden visited the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in Nairobi and met with Agriculture Minister Sally Kosgei. U.S. officials say that, as a result of severe drought, the Horn of Africa faces widespread crop failure, livestock mortality and increased food prices.
The United Nations says Somalia has been hardest hit by the crisis, with famine now affecting five regions across the country and threatening to spread. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that more than 600,000 Somalis have fled to neighboring countries, many "walking hundreds of miles to refugee camps in search of food and water" in a migration that has put additional strain on drought-affected areas of Kenya and Ethiopia.
Biden visited the Dadaab Refugee Complex in eastern Kenya, which Schwartz says currently hosts more than 420,000 Somali refugees, making it the largest refugee camp in the world.
She also met with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga during her trip "to discuss how the United States can work with international partners on the best response to the crisis," the White House said August 8.
USAID said the United States has contributed more than $565 million to the Horn of Africa in 2011 alone, helping at least 4.6 million people in need.
But Smith said that while the United States has played a leading role in assisting the region, U.S. leaders are also "aggressively reaching out" to the international community for support.
"We need other countries to step up with us," she said, adding that even as global leaders begin to take action, the United States continues to encourage all donors to "ramp up their responses."