A common misconception is that hunger crises are about a lack of food. Yet there is food in Kenya and Ethiopia, and even in many parts of Somalia. The real issue is poverty. The people affected are poor to begin with; when things turned bad, they had no recourse. In April the World Bank reported that 44 million people worldwide were pushed over the edge by skyrocketing food prices.
Such a perspective is largely missing in our food-aid program. It’s like a health insurance system that waits until someone has a full-blown illness before he or she can get treatment. By the end of June, with the crisis in full swing, the United States had committed a total of about $64 million to Kenya, much of it in the form of food supplies (this doesn’t include relief for the Somali refugees). But food aid loses at least half of its value, according to the Government Accountability Office, because we ship actual food instead of sending cash for local purchase, like most countries. And only $5 million was allocated to agriculture, nutrition, water and sanitation — about $1.33 per hungry person — things that would have helped people during lean times.
Blame politics...And, of course, there is the matter of optics: donors want to see dead babies before they provide significant assistance, one frustrated aid worker told me.
Blame also lies with the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments.
Aid officials say they realize that prevention is better than reaction. “We know how to do this,” Rajiv Shah, the head of U.S.A.I.D., told me during a trip he made in July to Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. “It is one-tenth the cost to provide effective agricultural support and help communities gain food security than it is to provide food aid at a time of famine.”Our shortsighted response also highlights a misunderstanding about foreign assistance and prevention.
While recent rain has eased the pressure, much of it will be lost because of a lack of water-collection facilities. And experts warn that so many in Kenya are weakened and destitute that the cycle is expected to start up again in May. In other words, droughts cannot be stopped. But the economics that link drought and famine can be upended, so that next time, the people of Wajir, and dozens of countries around the world, might be able to avoid untold, and unnecessary, suffering.It is great to see this kind of reporting but disappointing that it took so long for it to appear and that it had to be a part of the Sunday Review section rather than a page 1 article.