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Famine in East Africa: Who Cares?

Several Christian NGOs are on the move, provided they can get the appropriate funds.

More than 12 million people are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and other parts of East Africa, equivalent to the population of Ohio or Florida. Hundreds of thousands refugees have fled the drought-stricken region, and in the past three months, nearly 30,000 children have died. Yet the crisis has raised little attention in America. Private relief agencies are facing record low donations. The federal government is cutting its budget for humanitarian aid. And few Americans report even paying attention to the disaster.

Even though the need is great, some relief organizations are finding it difficult to raise the funds needed to assist the area. Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, said the Southern Baptist international relief fund is operating with just enough funds for six months. Contributions from Southern Baptist churches to the fund in 2010 were the lowest in 20 years, with the fund receiving only 40 percent of what it did just a year earlier.

"We are now at a 'red alert' time for our human needs funding," Palmer said. "These projects help the poorest of the poor, the most neglected and marginalized and some of the most lost people groups in the world. We are approaching a baseline where we are going to have to start denying funds to critical projects."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. is sending $122 million to the region, bringing the total U.S. assistance to the region to more than $580 million to help with food distribution, nutrition, clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and security. Overall, around 4.6 million people are assisted through U.S. funds.

"What is happening in the Horn of Africa is the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world today, and the worst that East Africa has seen in several decades," Clinton said last week at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

USAID recommends that those who would like to help the victims of the famine should contribute directly to one of the relief organizations already working in the region.

The listed organizations include World Vision, which has relief operations in northern Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, according to Mike Weickert, director of humanitarian and emergency affairs at World Vision. It plans on setting up an additional response center in southern Somalia, near the border between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that up to 140,000 Somali refugees have trekked through this region this year.

"Our World Vision assessment team visited Dolo last week and was struck by the extremely harsh conditions," said Weickert. "We met mothers who had delivered babies along the way, including one who had given birth on the hood of a car. Children are visibly ill and weak and urgent action is necessary to ensure their survival."

Samaritan's Purse is another relief organization working on the ground near the Somali border in Kenya, providing food, water, and other necessities. The relief organization is also running a work-for-pay program that provides employment for those in the area. Members of its staff report seeing animals left to die writhing on the ground, people walking miles just to get water to carry home, and families living in harsh conditions within refugee camps.

Government programs are facing cuts with the recent discussions over the national debt. Former U.N. ambassador Tony Hall wrote on Sojourners' God's Politics blog about how Congress is considering cuts to its food aid programs, programs that would help in the Horn of Africa. In April, the House passed a budget that made severe cuts to food, nutrition, and other relief programs. The budget included a 41 percent cut to U.S. disaster assistance programs, a 43 percent cut in funding for the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, and a 30 percent reduction in international food programs.

"Some of America's political leaders are considering budget cuts that would make it all but impossible for us to respond to crises like these in the future," Hall said. "Why are they cutting funding for emergency food aid in the middle of a famine? In 1984, people of faith and conscience said 'never again.' It's time for America to start living up to this promise."

Support for federally funded programs and donations to nonprofit relief organizations may remain low, however, unless Americans start paying attention to the news about the famine. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported Wednesday that a minority of Americans even feign attention to the famine. Only 15 percent reported that they had been closely following the news about the food shortage in Somalia; twice as many paid close attention to the stock market. And while only 4 percent in the Pew survey said Somalia was the story they were following the most, five times as many Americans said the stock market was their top story.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn. recently returned from visiting refugee camps in Kenya, part of a U.S. delegation that included Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden.

"A lot of people don't realize, especially in this environment of what's happening in terms of the economy here and at home, that this is the most acute food security emergency anywhere in the world now and in recent years," said Frist.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous coverage of world hunger includes:

Polling Evangelicals: Cut Aid to World's Poor, Unemployed | A Pew Research Center survey suggests evangelicals prefer the government spend on schools, the military, and police. (February 18, 2011)
Hunger Isn't History | The world produces more food than ever. So why do nearly a billion people still not have enough to eat? (November 7, 2008)
Famine Again? | Why some places suffer food shortages decade after decade. (May 11, 2007)

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