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Special Briefing on the Humanitarian Crisis in the Horn of Africa
July 19, 2011

On-The-Record Briefing


Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Dr. Reuben Brigety; Deputy Administrator of USAID Donald Steinberg; and Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance of USAID Nancy Lindborg

On the Current Situation in the Horn of Africa


Washington, D.C.
July 19, 2011


MS. FULTON: Good afternoon and welcome to the Department of State.  Today, to address the emerging humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, we have four briefers to speak to you today about a number of areas and initiatives.  We have with us Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson, who is the assistant secretary for African affairs.  We have Dr. Reuben Brigety, who is the deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.  We have Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg from the U.S. Agency for International Development.  And we have Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the bureau – excuse me, at the Agency for International Development.  Nancy is an addition to the lineup, so an extra special guest we have with us today.

I’m going to turn it over to each of the speakers in that order to give remarks, and then we’ll open it up for questions following that.  So I’d like to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Carson.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Thank you.  Good afternoon.  We in the United States Government have been responding to the evolving humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa for some time, and my colleagues and I will provide you with additional details on this situation.

However, I wanted to underline the importance that we attach to providing an appropriate and timely response in full partnership with the international community.  Severe drought, poor infrastructure and insecurity have had a debilitating impact on the welfare of millions of people in this region, especially in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.  This crisis has resulted in severe malnutrition, acute hunger, and rising levels of starvation.  It has generated extraordinary refugee flows across thousands of miles in East Africa.

The current crisis in the Horn has long-term and short-term implications.  It threatens the lives of those at risk, especially young children and women.  And it also endangers the hard-won development gains and the future prospects of millions of people throughout East Africa and the Horn.  Today, over 11 million people are in need of emergency assistance in the Horn of Africa.  In Kenya, an estimated 3.6 million people have been affected.  This includes refugees, rural pastoralists, and urban poor who are unable to buy adequate food because of escalating prices.

In Ethiopia, at least 4.5 million people are in need of assistance.  Almost 3 million people need assistance in Somalia.  In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees already in Kenya and in Ethiopia, new arrivals are coming in at staggering daily rates.  Many of these most recent refugees are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition, and there may be many more in need of assistance in Eritrea, where a repressive regime fails to provide data on the humanitarian needs of its own people.  The free flow of information is what allows people to make early choices that can help avert catastrophe.  We urge the Government of Eritrea to cooperate with the UN agencies and other international organizations to address the issue of hunger and food shortage in that country.

The State Department and USAID have been working with the international community and governments in the region to respond to food, water, shelter, and sanitation needs of affected populations.  As we work to address the short-term immediate needs in the region, we will continue to implement our Feed the Future initiative as part of our long-term strategy to mitigate the effects of prolonged drought and food shortage in this area in the future.  The Feed the Future program is intended to increase agricultural productivity, shift away from rain-fed agriculture, promote better storage techniques, employ modern farming methods, and utilize science and technology to assist populations in adapting to increasing erratic weather patterns throughout the Horn of Africa.  By investing in and working closely with regional governments, we hope the Feed the Future program will help reduce regional vulnerabilities to these types of humanitarian crises in the future.

An especially complex and difficult component of the Horn of Africa’s humanitarian crisis is the high number of Somali refugees flowing into both Ethiopia and Kenya.  This is a result of three overlapping and intersecting problems.  The first is the extreme climate-induced drought that has prevailed intensely for the past two years and cyclically for more than 50 years.  The second is the absence of a functioning central government in Somalia for over two decades.  And the third is the presence of the anti-Western terrorist organization Al-Shabaab in south central Somalia.  Al-Shabaab’s activities have clearly made the current situation much worse.  In January 2010, Al-Shabaab prohibited international humanitarian workers and organizations from operating in their areas of control.  And its continued refusal to grant humanitarian access has prevented the international community from responding to and mitigating some of the cumulative and most disastrous consequences of the drought in south central Somalia.

We have seen the recent reports that Al-Shabaab claims that it will finally allow international humanitarian aid into areas under its control.  We are consulting with international organizations that have worked in these areas to verify if there has been any real change in Al-Shabaab’s policies that would allow us and others to operate freely and without taxation imposed for humanitarian deliveries.  Al-Shabaab’s current policies are wreaking havoc and are not helping Somalis living in the south central part of that country.

The drought and humanitarian crisis in the Horn will not end next week or next month.  As this crisis and its humanitarian needs expand, the international community and host governments will be called upon to do more to respond to the immediate and critical humanitarian assistance needs in the Horn of Africa.  We recognize the measures that the countries in the region are putting in place, and we applaud our partners who have already responded generously to the appeals for assistance.  As we look for ways to implement more comprehensive approaches, we hope potential donors will increase food, shelter, and financial contributions as part of a focused campaign to meet the critical needs of the region.

I will now turn the podium over to my colleague, Dr. Reuben Brigety.  Thank you.

DR. BRIGETY: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon.  My name is Reuben Brigety.  I’m the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for the State Department’s refugee programs in all of continental Africa.  Thank you for coming today.

I returned Sunday night from Kenya and Ethiopia, where I visited the refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya and in the Dolo Ado region of Ethiopia.  In both countries, the State Department arranged for representatives of other embassies to accompany us, reflecting not only the high-level attention that our government is giving this emergency but also the multilateral approach we take to assisting refugees.  These efforts are critical to saving lives and maintaining access to safe asylum in the neighboring countries of Somalia, even as they themselves struggle with the drought that may indeed be the worst in 60 years.

You have undoubtedly heard about the staggering rates of malnutrition amongst new arrivals in the refugee camps, up to 50 percent global acute malnutrition in Ethiopia, for example, reflecting the even more grim state of affairs for children inside Somalia.  Humanitarian assistance experts expect this crisis to get worse before it gets better.

We have heard troubling reports from inside Somalia that the combined daily arrival rates of 3,200 new refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya could rise still more dramatically as the situation in Somalia grows increasingly desperate.

With enough human and financial resources, however, the international community can together address this refugee emergency.  During my visit to Dadaab, the prime minister of Kenya announced that the government would open the already completed extension of one of three Dadaab camps to new refugees.  It is the strong view of the Ethiopian and the Kenyan governments that the international community must do more to deliver food and other humanitarian assistance inside Somalia.  The Kenyans and Ethiopians see this as a means of stemming the refugee flows even as they insist that they will not prevent anyone fleeing Somalia from crossing their borders.  We understand the urgency of providing assistance to people inside Somalia and we welcome the continued generosity and support of the governments in the region that continue to host refugees in need.

Thank you very much, and I am pleased to turn the podium over to my colleague, Deputy Administrator Don Steinberg.

MR. STEINBERG: Thanks, Reuben.  I too am just returning from the Horn of Africa, where I had a chance over the past week to visit Djibouti, Sudan, and Ethiopia to review the response of the United States Government and the rest of the international community to the tragedy of 100,000 Somali men, women, and children who are driven from their homes and in the refugee camps in Ethiopia, driven there by drought and violence.

We witnessed the sight of families stumbling into the camps through the bitter Ogaden desert and receiving their first nutritious meals in months.  In most cases, that exodus took a week to ten days of walking through the desert.  It was heart-wrenching.  These numbers that we’re describing in Somalia are amplified by even greater numbers of people fleeing to Kenya in search of food, water, and security as their crops and their livestocks wither and the longstanding conflict continues.

As Johnnie said, the number of people in the Horn of Africa affected by this tragedy is staggering – more than 11 million in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia in need of emergency life-saving assistance.  The international community has responded to this recent surge.  We are racing to keep up.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that we’ve long been preparing for this tragedy.  As long ago as last summer, USAID-supported Famine Early Warning System Network, which we call FEWS NET, predicted this crisis, and in August of last year we started pre-positioning food and other supplies in Djibouti, in South Africa, and elsewhere in the region.  Since October of last year, the United States Government has provided assistance to 4.4 million affected people, a total of $383 million of life-saving food, supplies, and other necessary aid, including 348,000 metric tons of food.

As we look ahead, the USAID response along with our partners in a whole-of-government effort, is focused on three interlocking challenges.  In the short run, we’re going to continue our support of an aggressive and coordinated international response to the immediate humanitarian emergency.  I am going to London tomorrow – actually, this evening – to coordinate with all of the major donors who are operating to respond.  We’re having a meeting where we’re going to be discussing this issue and seeing what more we can do.

At this very moment, Raj Shah, the administrator of USAID, is on his way to Kenya, where he will visit the Dadaab refugee camp as well as the Wajir region in northern Kenya that is equally suffering from these problems.

Our response, again, is going to be primarily focused on food and water, but at the same time, we’re focused on health and disease so that we can prevent outbreaks in the refugee camps and other areas.

Our second prong, however, is to help communities confront the drought and extreme food insecurity.  In Ethiopia, for example, we’re providing a safety net program that provides cash and work for food.  And the work involves digging wells, creating medical clinics, nutrition education and sanitation.  As a result of those programs, about 7.5 million Ethiopians are not among those who are currently in need of international aid.

Equally important, we are working throughout the region to create sustainable food security by strengthening agriculture and rural development.  President Obama’s innovative and forward-looking Feed the Future initiative, which Johnnie Carson has described in detail, is already at work improving agricultural production, boosting markets, building infrastructure, bringing innovation, addressing the entire value change, and bringing women into the process of development.  American food security and emergency assistance experts with vast experience in the region are working together with our international counterparts to pursue a coordinated, aggressive, and comprehensive response to the short-, medium-, and longer-term approaches.  Again, the 11 million people in need of assistance in the eastern Horn deserve nothing less.  And with that, I’d like to ask our assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance, Nancy Lindborg, to say a few words.

MS. LINDBORG: Thanks, Don.  And good afternoon.  I want to underscore that, as I think all of us know, drought is not new for this region.  This region suffers cyclical droughts and through the years have – it has experienced significant suffering.  However, 20 years ago we established something that Don mentioned called FEWS NET, the Famine Early Warning System.  And this is – which is a USAID funded initiative – works closely with the UN to identify in advance rainfall conditions, does extensive analysis of historical and current rainfall cropping patterns, livestock health, market prices, and malnutrition rates.  As a result, this enabled us to know as early as last October that we would be facing record low rainfalls.  And we along with the international community, were able to preposition supplies and prepare to respond.

In addition, there has been significant work in the – particularly in Ethiopia that has enabled communities to be much better prepared to withstand severe drought.  And as a comparison, in 2002, 2003, which was the last time Ethiopia had a serious drought, there were 15 million Ethiopians who required humanitarian assistance.  This year it’s 4.5.  As serious as that number sounds, it represents a significant step forward in establishing community resilience.  This ability to be better prepared and to have those early warnings, coupled with, as Don described, the Feed the Future initiative that builds productivity, will continue to enable that region to withstand the ravages of drought.

Specifically, however, in Somalia, we’ve been unable to reach some of the most affected populations.  We have, however, been able to reach 1.5 million people in the more accessible areas of Somalia and been able to move forward with significant aid that provides therapeutic feeding, critical health treatments, clean water, proper sanitation, hygiene education, and supplies to help the prevention of disease.  I traveled to Hargeisa at the end of May both to underscore our commitment to the people of Somalia as well as ensure that we were providing as much assistance as we could.

We know that there’s a severe and unabated humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia, and aid workers are unable to reach reliably 61 percent of people in need due to the risk, the insecurity, and the inaccessibility through the presence of armed groups, like Al-Shabaab.  As you know, since January 2010, the United Nations World Food Program has unable – has been unable to operate in southern Somalia because of the extremely dangerous conditions.  This is true for other international and nongovernmental organizations as well.  It’s no coincidence that the Somalis who have the greatest need are living in the areas that are the most insecure.  We are, however, as Ambassador Carson noted, very encouraged to hear that aid groups are now being asked to help in some of these insecure areas.

We are working aggressively with other donors and the humanitarian community to test the possibility of delivering assistance in these previously inaccessible areas and are working closely to identify means of assistance.  We call on the international community to continue to step forward with the assistance needed throughout the region.  As Don said, we expect the conditions to deteriorate, especially if the fall rains are not as good as they need to be, and this requires all of us to be working aggressively to meet the needs of the region.  Thank you.

MS. FULTON: Okay.  I’d like to open it up for questions.  If you would help our briefers out, please just identify yourself and let us know who it is that you would like to ask the question.  Do you want to go first, Michelle?

QUESTION: Yeah.  I have two questions.  Michelle Kelemen, NPR.  The first one for Dr. Brigety.  You talked about this extension at that one camp, but the Kenyans have been reluctant to open this, they’re worried about the influx of Somalis, they talk about concerns about terrorism.  What are you telling them about that?  Are you offering them any sort of assurances?  And then I have one other question following up either for you, Ms. Lindborg, or for Johnnie Carson about whether U.S. sanctions on Al-Shabaab are complicating.  I know you talk about the complications coming from the Al-Shabaab and the insecurity, but are U.S. sanctions preventing USAID agencies in going in?

DR. BRIGETY: Michelle, thank you very much for that question.  As of last Thursday, the Government of Kenya has publicly decided to open the second camp.  The camp is called Ifo II.  I was standing next to Prime Minister Raila Odinga as he made that announcement to an international press gathering in Dadaab last Thursday.  This is – as you’ve mentioned, this is a development that the international community has been requesting for some time.  We welcome the Kenyan Government’s decision to open that camp.  It is our understanding that while previously, the Government of Kenya saw opening the camp as essentially a security risk, only inviting more refugees in, they have recognized that, certainly over the last year or so, that there have been flows of refugees that have come unabated and, as they say, in increasing numbers just in the last several weeks.

Thus what has developed over the last several months is essentially a series of spontaneous settlements on the outskirts of the camps of Ifo, where refugees are settling in an unorganized way, in a way in which they aren’t properly registered.  And that was seen by the Government of Kenya finally as an even greater security threat, having these large numbers of people that are coming in an unorganized way and filling them in an unorganized way, which is part of the reason why they decided to open up Ifo II.

We continue to work with the Government of Kenya.  We are – continue to be strong partners with them.  We welcome, as I say, this decision to open a camp and we look forward to their increasing cooperation as this crisis unfolds.  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: In response to the second question, U.S. sanctions are not the issue or the problem.  The issue and the problem is Al-Shabaab.  International organizations such as CARE, Save the Children, UNICEF, the WFP, don’t have sanctions.  But it is those organizations that have been equally denied an opportunity to operate in south central Somalia.  We call on all of those in south central Somalia who have it within their authority to allow refugee groups and organizations to operate there to do so.  But the issue is Al-Shabaab.  It’s not sanctions.  Organizations do not – such as the ones I just mentioned – don’t have sanctions, but they’ve also been barred.

MS. FULTON: Thanks.  Next question.


QUESTION: Thank you.  Jill Dougherty from CNN.  I wanted to follow up on the – testing the possibility of – excuse me – delivering this aid.  Can you give us a better idea, Ms. Lindborg, of how this is being done?  Do people go into the field?  Are they talking to Al-Shabaab?  What exactly is going on?

MS. LINDBORG: Under the auspices of the UN, they are testing what might be possible.  The – clearly, what we all are hoping for is the ability to deliver assistance without some of the punitive conditions and the insecurity that have resulted from the Shabaab control over the last year or year and a half.  So there are probes already being made, there are discussions underway, and we hope to have more information in the next week.

QUESTION: The probes?  Is that discussion or –

MS. LINDBORG: Well, I think you saw in the media that UNICEF went last week with an expedition into the Baidoa.  There are opportunities to work in select areas where there isn’t the impediments created by tolls, by taxing, by threats of insecurity, and by kidnapping.  So where one is able, where we as the international community are able to provide assistance and ensure that it’s reaching those who are desperately in need, we are fully prepared to do so.

MS. FULTON: Next question.   Right here.

QUESTION: Yeah.  I will have – one question with – for – to Mr. Carson.  You know Somalia – in 1992, there was a similar situation and the international community, including the United States, responded in a bigger way.  What’s the next plan, apart from sending some donations to Somalia?  Is there any other plan from the U.S. Government toward Somalia?  Is there any (inaudible) you are going to provide Somalia?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me say that the Horn of Africa has faced over the years a number of cyclical droughts.  And indeed, back in the late 1980s, we saw another major drought situation occur.  After that, I think my colleagues have pointed out that the FEWS NET program was established to be able to monitor and to warn about droughts.  We also started working with various governments to improve their ability to adjust to extreme climatic conditions, to change crops, to be able to store and protect more food and to do a number of other things.  The United States over the last decade has been one of the largest and continues to be one of the largest suppliers of humanitarian support and assistance to the region.  We continue to work with governments throughout the region, and we hope that our Feed the Future program will contribute to better protection of people against droughts in the future.

MS. FULTON: Next question?

QUESTION: Another question for Assistant Secretary Carson.  George Zornick from The Nation magazine.  Last week our magazine reported on the existence of a CIA-run prison in Mogadishu.  Is this something that you or the State Department was aware of, the existence of this prison?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: I will not comment on any issues related to the CIA or to intelligence matters.

QUESTION: Can you say whether you’ve been working with the recognized officials of Somalia to brief them on what’s happening there.

MS. FULTON: We’re going to stick to briefing on the situation – the emerging humanitarian situation in the Horn today.  So next question in that vein.

QUESTION: The World Health Organization yesterday issued a warning that 9 million people are at risk of cholera and measles outbreak in the region, and it has been aggravated by fast movement of the people who are exposed to the drought.  And is there a clear picture that what has been done?

MS. LINDBORG: Hi.  I – also in response to the previous question, we’ve looked very closely at the famine in ’92, and what we’ve learned is that there are several very important and critical steps that we, the international community, need to take.  And the first is ensure that we’re able to address public health issues more effectively, including exactly the kind of communicable diseases that are most prevalent, especially when you have populations that are moving and populations that are malnourished.  So it’s cholera, it’s measles, it’s diarrhea, it’s all these diseases that we need to effectively address and very quickly enable vaccinations and health  treatments to reach.

Secondly, we need to ensure that there’s improved access of food.  There are – there is availability of food in some of the markets.  The inflation rate is so high that those – many families are unable to afford the food.  And thirdly, one needs to get food in, especially therapeutic food for those who are at most risk, through high malnutrition, of reaching fatalities.  We remain very concerned about the situation and are working very closely with the international community to ensure that we get the right approaches in quickly, based on what we know from past famines and past drought situations.

MS. FULTON: I think we have time for about two more questions.

QUESTION: Camille Elhassani from Al-Jazeera English Television.  I had a question about Eritrea.  You – Mr. Carson, you’ve called for them to provide the data so that you know what the situation is there.  Has there – have you seen refugees from Eritrea moving into neighboring countries, and do you have an expectation that they are going to cooperate so that you and the other international community can help them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Eritrea is a closed and increasingly reclusive country, and its government has not been particularly helpful in sharing data and information about the severity of the food shortages or the drought in its country.  Because it is a part of the Greater Horn of Africa, we assume that conditions in Eritrea are probably quite similar to the drought conditions that we are seeing in other places – in Ethiopia and in Kenya, Djibouti, and in Somalia.  Because we don’t know what’s happening, our understanding of the situation is limited, but we encourage them to be more open about their needs and the needs of their population.

MS. FULTON: Thank you.  Last question, Brad.

QUESTION: Yes.  I think for Mr. Steinberg.  You said you’re going tomorrow to a donors conference in London.  Could you just explain what you aim to accomplish there?  Will there be new funding talked about, new plans about reaching new groups?  What is this consolidated approach going to be?

MR. STEINBERG: Yeah, indeed.  Once a year, the major development ministers from the OECD countries get together to coordinate to talk about larger development issues, to reflect on the state of what we’re doing.  We have decided, as of yesterday at the request of the United States Government, to use that as an opportunity to draw us together to talk frankly about two issues – one, the situation in Southern Sudan and how we can promote an aggressive comprehensive response to the very exciting events in Juba with its independence, but secondly, to address the situation in the Horn of Africa.

We suspect that a number of ministers will come with new ideas, with new proposals for assistance.  This is, as we’ve said, a rapidly changing environment, and we’ve already received very strong indications of international support coming together.  We will also, in the Horn with Administrator Shah’s visit there, be coordinating with our partners UNHCR, OCHA, UNICEF, the World Food Program in particular, to ensure a coordinated and comprehensive response to what is, at present, one of the true impending disasters that we’re all facing.

QUESTION: Can I ask a Sudan question while we have Johnnie Carson here?

MS. FULTON: If you want.

QUESTION: There’s – I mean, there’s a letter going around today with a lot of activists talking about much tougher action against Sudan, including the possibility of drone strikes or cruise missile strikes to prevent ethnic cleansing going on in Southern Kordofan and Abyei, and I wonder if you’ve received these recommendations, whether you have any concerns about – what are your latest concerns about what’s going on in those two regions?

MS. FULTON: Would you indulge us?


MS. FULTON: Thank you.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: — very, very briefly, only to say that we remain very focused on Sudan and the need to encourage both parties, North and South, to complete all of the elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that have not yet been resolved.  These issues are Abyei, they are also oil and transitional financial arrangements, they also include the need to resolve issues related to citizenship, and five, issues related to border demarcation.  It is important that both sides resume their discussions as quickly as possible to move towards a resolution of all of these issues.

We also remain deeply concerned about the continuing violence that we have seen in Southern Kordofan, and we urge the Government of Sudan to move as quickly as possible to stop the violence that is being perpetrated by its soldiers, and to align itself, again, with its commitments under the global – under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

MS. FULTON: Thank you.


MS. FULTON: Oh, yes.

MR. STEINBERG: — just comment very, very quickly?  Because USAID is indeed launching, in a whole-of-government approach, a very aggressive response to the humanitarian crisis that we’ve talked about here with about 180,000 people driven from their homes, both from Abyei and from South Kordofan.  We do, as Assistant Secretary Carson said, have a very serious access problem, and in – especially in the Nuba Mountains.  And we have called aggressively, both bilaterally but also multilaterally, on the Government of Sudan to open up access to those regions, to allow humanitarian workers in, to, as Assistant Secretary Carson said, to cease the violence that is occurring now, and to reach a permanent solution to the question of the SPLM’s North role in that region.

MS. FULTON: Okay.  With that, I’d like to thank our briefers and thank you, everyone, for joining us today.