Famine must receive more of the world’s attention

Americans shouldn’t be distracted from addressing one of the world’s great crises: starvation affecting millions.

Sam Mednick/AP
Men, women and children line up June 17 to be registered with the World Food Programme for food distribution in South Sudan. Almost 2 million people are on the brink of starvation and an estimated 6 million people – half the population – will face extreme food insecurity in June and July, according to the government and the United Nations.

That famine could ravage millions of people in the 21st century seems unthinkable. But somehow the same world that is agog at driverless cars and looming trips to Mars is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in seven decades.

As many as 20 million people face the threat of starvation in South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, according to the United Nations.

When the UN declares a famine, it isn’t saying that a crisis looms on the horizon: It means that very bad things are already happening, that many people have already died. Famine is declared only when at least 20 percent of families in a region face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition exceeds 30 percent of the population, and the daily death rate exceeds two adults out of every 10,000 people, according to the World Food Program.

The “why” behind famine isn’t mysterious. Enough food is produced to feed the 7.5 billion people on the planet. But often wars and other internal armed conflicts interfere with the ability of humanitarian groups to reach those in need. And more and more existing extremes of weather, including drought, are made worse by the creeping effects of human-induced climate change.

Thanks to aggressive humanitarian efforts, earlier this month South Sudan was declared to be technically no longer in famine, at least for the moment. But that headline failed to capture the bigger picture.

“I do urge caution, as this does not mean we have turned the corner on averting famine,” says Stephen O’Brien, the UN official in charge of humanitarian and emergency aid. “Across South Sudan, more people are on the brink of famine today than were in February," when the country was designated as experiencing famine.

In the United States, public attention has been riveted by the colorful new occupant of the White House, and whether Congress will dramatically revise the nation’s health-care system.

President Trump has submitted a budget calling for a huge cut in international humanitarian aid. But David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, has confidence that the aid will receive bipartisan support in Congress. The former Republican governor of South Carolina points out that the US Senate already has set aside nearly a billion dollars for humanitarian relief this year.

“While the European Union and Belgium have been tremendous supporters, the needs at this time are just extraordinary,” Mr. Beasley says. Some “1.4 million [people] are literally on the brink of starvation as we speak. If we do not receive the resources, the food that we need in the next few months, we are talking about the possibility of 600,000 dying. If we receive the funds, we can avert famine and minimize the chance of death.”

With Congress headed to recess, and Washington’s drama in a short intermission, attention to this urgent issue needs to take a more prominent place in news reports – and in the prayers and individual efforts of Americans and people everywhere.

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