State Dept. official gives status report on Somali famine

Somalia Famine
A Somali man displaced by drought waits to receive rations at a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, Wednesday, July 20, 2011. Thousands of people have arrived in Mogadishu over the past two weeks seeking assistance.
AP Photo/Mohamed Sheikh Nor

About 3.6 million people in Somalia are at risk of starvation as the Horn of Africa continues to experience its worst drought in decades.

The U.S. estimates more than 29,000 Somali children under the age of 5 have died in the country's famine in the past three months.

There is a glimmer of good news. The U.N.'s food agency said it has been able to reach more parts of famine-struck Somalia in the last month. But there were still significant security challenges in Mogadishu even after the departure of the Islamist group al-Shabab.

Eric Schwartz, the assistant secretary of the bureau of population, refugees and migration in the U.S. State Department, just returned from a visit to Kenya. He spoke with MPR News' Tom Crann on Thursday.

Tom Crann: I understand you spent all your time at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, just over the border from Somalia. What is the situation like there?

Eric Schwartz: It's a very difficult situation in the camp. It's now probably the world's largest refugee camp. Over 100,000 people have come into the Dadaab complex over the past several months, and the population of the complex now is probably over 420,000. So the demands on the relief workers are really intensive because people are coming in in such a terribly fragile state.

Crann: What is the biggest need there? Is it food or medical care? As you see it, what's the worst of the situation?

Schwartz: I think the needs are great in all of these areas, but I think therapeutic feeding and early medical interventions are critical in a situation like this. And that's why the international organizations are focused largely on those issues, but there's also a huge food requirement as well, and that's being supported very strongly by the United States through our support for the World Food Program.

Crann: You were there with former Senator Bill Frist, who is a physician himself. Did you get a sense that there are enough doctors and there is enough care for those who need it?

Schwartz: No, the answer is no. There is not enough of either, and it's a tragic situation. And yes, we went with former Senator Bill Frist, and the delegation was led by Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, designed to really focus attention on the urgent needs there because contributions from the general public are very important in this area.

But the problems are just yawning. They're very substantial, but strong efforts are being made by the United States, by international organizations to provide food when people get into the camp, and the numbers in Kenya are very large. They're about between 1,400 and 1,800 Somalis coming into the camp each and every day.

So the logistical requirement, especially because we're in such a remote area of Kenya, are really overwhelming, but progress is being made. People are being fed, and interventions are effective, so more support and contributions make a huge difference.

Crann: The reporting I've been reading the last few days from the camp in Dadaab is not a pretty picture. It's very hard to get food in. There remain obstacles. What did you hear about the obstacles to actually getting relief to the people who need it?

Schwartz: There are huge logistical constraints, even in Kenya, which is obviously the country of refuge. That area is one that is not at war as is the case in Somalia, but the area is so remote. The infrastructure is very modest, so there is just a huge logistical challenge in terms of getting all the material that needs to get to the camp.

In addition, The U.N. appeal for this crisis is only funded at about between 40 and 50 percent. So, more resources are needed. The United States has led the way with about $560 million in support for the crisis in the Horn generally, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, but other governments have to come forward and do more. And we're pressing other governments to do more, but also this is an area where the American people can play an extremely valuable role in providing support for non-governmental organizations that provide assistance.

Crann: You mention there are logistical challenges. What other obstacles are getting in the way? We're hearing of security problems, piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Schwartz: Well, I think the principal obstacles for relief in areas of refuge, that is, Kenya and Ethiopia. And let's not forget Ethiopia because Ethiopia is hosting now probably over 160,000 Somalis as well. The principal obstacles in those areas, I believe, are just logistical in terms of infrastructure, getting all that material in, and frankly, the funding issue.

The international community has raised an awful lot of money, but much more needs to be raised, but the bigger problem for access of course is Somalia. And despite the reported withdrawal of al-Shabab from Mogadishu, Mogadishu still remains a very insecure area. And there are large numbers of Somalis who live outside of Mogadishu, and many of them live in areas that remain under al-Shabab control. Our estimate is that more than 2 million remain in areas under al-Shabab control. So there the obstacles to delivery of assistance are formidable, but international organizations and NGOs are doing the best they can with our very strong support.

Crann: What has the role of the U.S. government been here? What has it provided, and what do you see the role being moving forward?

Schwartz: Well, primarily on the relief effort, we provide, in the simplest terms, two kinds of support. We provide food aid, a huge amount of food aid from the United States. Probably as of a week or two ago, the number was over $350 million, but I'm quite certain that number is now even larger, given the recent announcement of additional United States aid, and also support for non-food assistance, shelter materials and other requirements for refugees.

We support the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which manages the camps. And we also support the World Food Program, which is the main provider of food, and we also support a range of other international organizations and non-governmental organizations that are trying to find ways to get food into Somalia.

And let me say that in Somalia, we have been able to assist probably, over the past many months, hundreds of thousands of Somalis, but there are still so many who are inaccessible. Again, estimates of nearly two million people in areas under al-Shabab, and the principal obstacle for delivery there is resistance by al-Shabab to the entry of international organizations and NGOs that could be in a position to provide help.

The United States is also leading efforts to try to promote other donors to come forward and provide assistance. Our number, about $560 million in support, leads the international community, but we can't do it all by ourselves. We can't even do a majority of it by ourselves, so we need other governments to come forward, and we're aggressively engaged in efforts to try to make that happen.

Crann: You say $560 million. Did anything you see there, though, prompt you to wonder if the U.S. could step up the effort? I know it has to be multilateral, but is there a possibility here of even more support after what you've seen?

Schwartz: Well, I think we're going to have to look at, in an extremely constrained budget environment, we all know the constraints on the budget, it is morally incumbent upon us. We have an ethical obligation to try to find other resources as this crisis continues. This can't be the end of our support for organizations that are trying to help in the Horn of Africa, but again, we're not going to be able to do it by ourselves.

Crann: As you know, here in Minnesota and in the Twin Cities specifically, we have a large population of Somali Americans who undoubtedly are listening to this news with interest. What would you say to them? What is the message from their government about this issue?

Schwartz: Well first of all, we're very proud of the Somali American community in the United States. As assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, it was my great pleasure to come out to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area last year and visit with resettled refugees from Somalia. And the United States has resettled tens of thousands of Somalis since 1980, and so they are a critically important part of the mosaic of American life.

I think what I would say to Somali Americans, as I would say to all Americans, is go to the U.S. A.I.D. website and go to the link that says, 'Donate now,' and look for opportunities to assist a whole range of non-governmental organizations that are doing good work in the region. Cash support for those organizations right now is the most valuable thing we can do.

Crann: What's the most important thing for our listeners in general to know about the situation, now that you've seen it firsthand, that maybe isn't getting out there in the coverage?

Schwartz: That it's difficult to overestimate the magnitude of this crisis. There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children in Somalia at risk of famine and death, but it's also important to note that assistance efforts make a difference.

So we're looking for support from the American people through charitable contributions, and in spite of the fact that the most serious political, humanitarian issues in that region are going to be solved through politics, because the political situation in Somalia, the conflict is such a part of this humanitarian crisis, in spite of the fact that so much of it is driven by politics, humanitarian assistance in this particular situation can make a huge difference in saving lives, that the assistance makes a difference.

So if you have a place to direct your charitable dollars, there is no more worthy cause than this one right now, as far as I'm concerned.

Crann: Somalia does not have, for the most part, a functioning government, but Kenya is more developed next door and is the host country for so many ... refugees, but there's a lot of anger in Kenya toward the government and corruption there, that some of this could have been avoided. What's the U.S.' message to Kenya in this situation?

Schwartz: Well, let me make a few points. First of all, Kenya now is probably hosting somewhere around 475,000 Somalis, about 400,020 or more who are in this Dadaab complex in northeast Kenya, but I think even though there are 3.7 million Kenyans at risk, there would be many, many more Kenyans at risk had the government, with the support of the United States, not instituted a range of agricultural development, policies that are designed to avoid the impacts of drought.

And it's important to note the critical significance of that work in building resiliency through the U.S. government's initiative, Feed the Future, which tries to create a situation so that we don't have to respond to these kind of humanitarian crises time and again, but rather build the capacity of governments to develop drought resisting crops and other means to avoid this sort of situation. And we've made progress on that, in cooperation with the government of Kenya.

Also, I think I have to mention that we're very grateful for the government of Kenya's willingness to provide refuge to so many Somalis. After all, the number in the camps probably constitute about one percent of the entire population of Kenya. That's a huge number. So we have to give the government of Kenya credit for its willingness to continue to provide refuge. That's not to dismiss the issues that you've addressed, good governance issues, the development of strong democratic institutions, but as you know, those issues are very, very high on our priority list in the U.S. government, and they're the subject of continual discussion with Kenyan government officials.

(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)