In 2003, Roger Thurow was a journalist assigned to cover the looming famine in Ethiopia. Upon arriving in the country, he was given a warning by a World Food Program worker who told him that “looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul.”
Thurow soon found that to be all too true. While visiting the emergency feeding tents he met a little boy named Hagirso who was five years old and weighed under 14 kilograms when his dad carried him in from their village.
“He was severely malnourished and basically disappearing,” Thurow recalled. “That haunted me. Hagirso, the whole setting, everything that was going on in the emergency feeding tents and just the magnitude of the famine. It was the first famine of the 21st century. What’s wrong with us that we brought famine into this new millennium of ours?”
Ten years later, Thurow returned to see what had happened to Hagirso. He found the boy was physically stunted, only coming up slightly above an adult’s waist and was cognitively stunted, learning at a first grade level.
“You just have to wonder, what might they have accomplished? What might they have achieved for all of us in the world, were they not stunted?” he said. “The lost chance of greatness for one child becomes a lost chance for all of us.”
On Thursday, Thurow was one of three experts testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee meeting on the ongoing food crisis in Yemen and the African nations of Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. Labeled the worst food crisis since World War II, an estimated 28 million people now need humanitarian assistance.
In all four countries, drought or climate challenges are being exacerbated by war.
“The bottom line and the biggest takeaway is that conflict is driving these famines,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, the chairman of the subcommittee. “The farmers of Africa are extraordinary. They can grow anything, plus they have this wonderful arable land that goes unplanted because of conflict. And the humanitarian help cannot get to them because of the soldiers and the militias. There has to be an all-out effort to end this war.”
Aid funding cuts
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives successfully added $1 billion to the omnibus appropriations bill specifically to address the famine through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Many, however, voiced concerns over a budget blueprint proposed by President Donald Trump that would cut USAID funding by 31 percent and consolidate it within the Department of State.
“The president’s budget that was introduced into the Congress worries me because they propose to cut a lot of hunger programs, not only overseas, but even in our own country,” said Tony P. Hall, executive director emeritus at the Alliance to End Hunger. “And so it worries me because it will hurt. I think Congress will be against a lot of those cuts, but we’re very concerned.”
Smith said the dire warnings about proposed cuts to USAID and foreign assistance are overblown. “I don’t think the budget cuts are going anywhere,” he said. “I’ve been in Congress 37 years. The next budget that I see arriving on Capitol Hill that becomes anything but a talking point will be the first.” He added of Congress: “We’re the ones who write the budget.”
Julien Schopp, director for humanitarian practice at InterAction, who testified at the hearing, said the future uncertainty of U.S. funding for humanitarian relief offers the ideal time for other countries to step up.
“The humanitarian need, if you look at the global picture, is growing, growing, growing in terms of dollar amounts and number of people that need to be assisted,” he said. “So we need to talk more to the Gulf countries, talk more to China, to talk more to non-traditional donors. Because at some point it’s not going to be possible for the U.S. and Europe to continue carrying that load.”
More help needed
Smith agreed, saying he’d like to see U.S. partners do more to address the food crisis. “We ask that more of our international partners and friends kick in far more money than they have. We’re glad they’re helpful, but they could be more helpful,” he said.
During his recent trip to Uganda and South Sudan, Smith had the opportunity to meet with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. During the meeting, he handed the Ugandan leader a copy of Roger Thurow’s book, The First 1,000 Days. The book argues that children must be protected from malnutrition, disease and other ailments for the first 1,000 days of their lives to ensure a bright future for themselves, their communities and the world.
“My message to all of Africa, all the world including the U.S., is: get the first 1,000 days right, protect mother and baby, supplement it with food and nutrition and supplementation and vitamins; you’ll have a healthier planet because all of us will be that much stronger,” Smith said.