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Humanitarian Situation in the Horn of Africa
July 25, 2011

Reuben Brigety, Deputy Assistant Secretary

Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance of USAID
Bruce Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa on Public Diplomacy
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
July 22, 2011

MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to Foreign Press Center. We’re pleased to have with us today Nancy Lindborg, the Assistant Administrator of USAID for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance; and Bruce Wharton, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa on Public Diplomacy. They’re here with us to talk about the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa. Dr. Reuben Brigety is still scheduled to come. He’s unfortunately running late, but hopefully he should be here shortly.

So I’ll just open it up with Nancy.

MS. LINDBORG: Great, thank you. And thank you for joining us this morning. We are here to talk today about the very severe drought and resulting impacts on the Horn of Africa. We, I think, are all looking with great concern with what is the worst rainfall in 60 years that’s affecting a swath of Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. This is – we are much more prepared to meet these kinds of droughts than we have been in the past. Almost 20 years ago, USAID established something called FEWS NET – Famine Early Warning Systems – that works together with UN systems, FSNAU, and other climactic experts to really measure deeply a variety of factors, from rainfall patterns to crop patterns, food prices, nutrition, mortality rates. So we are able to prepare and to respond far more effectively than we ever have been before.

So as a result, we started getting the warning signs last September and began quickly doing preparations in terms of prepositioning supplies and increasing our programs to those communities that are – that were targeted to be affected by the drought. As a result, we are in much better shape than we have been for past droughts of this magnitude, and also because of the programs we’ve been doing for nearly a decade now with drought-affected communities in Ethiopia and Kenya to increase their resilience, to increase their ability to weather these kinds of shocks. And this is a part of what President Obama and Secretary Clinton have really been focused on with the Feed the Future initiative, in that we need to enable communities to weather these kinds of shocks more capably and ensure that we don’t have these kinds of times when people are overwhelmed by drought.

As a result, in Ethiopia, as bad as 4.5 million drought-affected people are, in 2002 it was 15 million. So in fact, there has been, I think, extraordinary improvements in the way that communities are able to weather these droughts.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Somalia, where there has been 20 years of conflict, no governance, and an inability to reach 60 percent of the population. I think as you know, in the Shabaab-controlled areas, World Food Program has not been able to operate since January 2010. And as a result, we had the famine declaration yesterday morning. This is a gravely, gravely serious declaration. We do not, as an international community, use the word famine lightly. There are very specific and very alarming factors that cause us to declare famine, and which the UN did yesterday morning.

The United States is moving aggressively, working with our partners, to provide humanitarian assistance wherever we can, based on the indication two weeks ago from Al-Shabaab for humanitarian workers to come back in. It is no coincidence that the part of Somalia that is the hardest hit is the part that’s been controlled by Shabaab for the last several years.

We are deeply committed to working aggressively with other donors in the humanitarian community to deliver assistance in all parts of Somalia where we are able to do so. To date, we’ve committed $80 million of assistance to Somalia, which is part of $450 million that we’ve committed throughout the Horn for this emergency.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to my colleague.

MR. WHARTON: Thanks very much, Nancy. Yeah, again, I’m Bruce Wharton. I represent the Africa Bureau here, and I’d like to just sort of add a few sort of policy notes to the good information that Nancy’s already provided you.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have been working together on this problem for some time. As Nancy indicated, FEWS NET and other early warning systems let us know as early as a year ago that the region faced serious problems. And I think we can be proud of the work that’s been done thus far to try to address this humanitarian need. But it is a huge problem. More than 11 million people need assistance, emergency assistance, in the Horn of Africa. And as Nancy said, the UN has now declared areas of famine in two parts of Somalia, and that is likely to grow.

Among the people in need of assistance are 3.6 million in Kenya; 4.5 million in Ethiopia; and more than 3 million in Somalia. So this includes refugees, rural pastoralists, and urban poor who are unable to buy food because of increasing – escalating food prices. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees who are already in Kenya and Ethiopia, new arrivals are coming in at tremendous rates. And many of these refugees are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition.

There may be more people in need of assistance in Eritrea, but that government refuses to share data with the international community about the situation there. And we urge the Government of Eritrea to cooperate with UN agencies and other international organizations to address the issue of hunger and food shortages that may exist 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 Nancy mentioned, as we work to address the immediate emergency needs, we’ve got to look to implement long-term solutions, such as the President’s Feed the Future initiative.

I think an especially complex part of the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa is the high number of Somali refugees flowing into both Ethiopia and Kenya, and our colleague Reuben Brigety will speak to that in just a moment. But this is the result, really, of three overlapping problems. The first is the extreme, climate-induced drought that has prevailed for the past two years and has existed cyclically for more than 50 years. The second big problem is the absence of a functioning central government in Somalia for more than 22 years. And the third is the presence of the anti-Western terrorist organization Al-Shabaab in south-central Somalia. Twenty years without a central government and the relentless terrorism by Al-Shabaab against its own people have turned an already severe situation in Somalia into a dire one, and one that is only expected to get worse.

I think we’ve all heard the news this morning that Al-Shabaab denies that a famine exists and that they are maintaining their ban on humanitarian assistance offered by the international community. I think this brutal and senseless decision shows Al-Shabaab’s true colors. They will continue to wage war against the people of Somalia, even as the United States and the international community seek to provide food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance.

The drought and humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa 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 needs in the Horn of Africa. We recognize measures that countries in the region are putting in place, and we applaud our partners who have already responded generously to the appeals for assistance. Now we need all donors in the international community to commit to taking additional steps to tackle both the immediate assistance needs and to strengthen the capacity in the region to respond to future crises.

Thanks for that. Let me offer Dr. Brigety.

DR. BRIGETY: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I just 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, we arranged for representatives from other embassies to accompany us, requesting not only the high-level attention that our government is giving to this emergency, but also the multilateral approach that we take in assisting refugees.

Our diplomacy and our dollars leverage each other to support – to provide donor support for international protection in assistance efforts. These efforts are critical to saving lives and maintaining access to (inaudible) in the neighboring countries of Somalia, even as they themselves struggle with a drought that may be – may very well 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 – reflecting the even more grim state of affairs for children inside Somalia. Humanitarian assistance experts expect this crisis will get worse before it gets better. We have heard troubling reports from inside Somalia that the combined daily arrival rates of 2,200 new refugees every day into Ethiopia and Kenya could still rise more dramatically as the situation in Somalia grows more desperate.

With enough human and financial resources, the international community can address together this refugee emergency. The United States has already contributed generously to the response, and we have seen other donors step up already, and we hope that more donors will step up in the coming days.

During my visit to Dadaab, the prime minister of Kenya, the Right Honorable Raila Odinga, announced that the government would open the already completed extension of one of the three Dadaab camps for refugees, known as Ifo Two. We hope that the Government of Kenya will make good on this promise made by the prime minister. We note that 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 in their countries even as they insist that they will not prevent anyone from fleeing Somalia crossing their borders. We are grateful for the generous response of the Governments of Ethiopia and Kenya, and we will continue to stand by them as they face this crisis. And I thank you very much for your attention.

MODERATOR: And with that, we will open it up for questions. I just want to remind everyone to please state your name and media organization before asking a question.

QUESTION: I’m Charlene Porter with International News Services at the State Department. Ms. Lindborg, can we correct – you said the UN declaration yesterday – wasn’t it Wednesday? This Friday –

MS. LINDBORG: This is Friday – it was Wednesday morning. I’m sorry. I’m losing track of time.

QUESTION: I’m sure. I can understand that. But just to clarify –

MS. LINDBORG: Mike Bowden in Nairobi, on the basis of substantial review of the data by a series of experts.

QUESTION: Okay. Yeah, just to clarify.

MS. LINDBORG: Thank you.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Keiichi Shirato of the Mainichi newspaper of Japan. (Inaudible.) And my question is about the food situation inside Somalia. When we think about (inaudible), I’m concerned that what happened in the early 1990s, that the militia controlled part of Somalia, there was a kind of a taxation on humanitarian food and other aid. Do you have – do you find that same kind of signal of the taxation imposed by the Al-Shabaab (inaudible) or if you find such kind of signal, how are you going to treat this kind of problem?

MR. WHARTON: Well, I think it’s pretty clear to us that Al-Shabaab is the reason that humanitarian assistance is being denied to people who need it in parts of south and central Somalia. If Al-Shabaab will clear out, get out of the way and allow humanitarian assistance to move forward, we will totally support that.

MS. LINDBORG: I would just add, on a slightly different piece of your question, is that we know from past famine responses that we need to move aggressively not just on food but on health, because one of the largest of causes of mortality for children under five in famine is disease. And so we are as concerned about ensuring that we are able to reach children and their families with immediate lifesaving health assistance, including clean water and vaccinations. And so we’re moving aggressively on all those fronts.

QUESTION: May I – again, it’s Charlene Porter with the International News Service at the State Department. If, logistically, the situation around Mogadishu and these regions where the problem is most acute and indeed where you have Al-Shabaab, doesn’t this say – (inaudible) earlier that a lot of aid is being handled in Mogadishu? That is correct?


QUESTION: So it’s a matter of whether people in these surrounding regions are able to reach Mogadishu to receive any assistance is the problem?

MS. LINDBORG: We are working with our UN and NGO partners to aggressively test where we are able to reach all parts of southern Somalia where there are needs. We believe that if – you need to – the – sorry. The Somalia drought is the worst in the south, as you can see in the map.

QUESTION: In the dark red?

MS. LINDBORG: Right. And as both my colleagues have said, we expect it will get worse before it gets better. And since there – the next possibility for rains will be in October. And even if rains come, oftentimes in a drought situation, sudden rains create additional health problems or livestock death. And the projections from FEWS NET are that the entire southern part of Somalia will go into the red.

QUESTION: All of that?

MS. LINDBORG: So we need to move rapidly into those parts of Somalia where the needs are the greatest, and we are working with our partners to go all the places we’re able to have access.

QUESTION: Okay. So what I’m asking, then, is: You have people in a position to deliver aid now only in Mogadishu; that’s the only footprint you have in Somalia, correct?

MS. LINDBORG: That is not true.

QUESTION: Okay. Then let’s clarify that – how many places you are, how many places you need to be is, I guess, what I’m getting at. And where do you think Shabaab is going to be in the way?

MS. LINDBORG: We are already providing assistance throughout Somalia. In – it has been very limited in the Al-Shabaab areas because they have not enabled access. World Food Program has not been able, because of Al-Shabaab, to offer aid in the south since January 2010. We are now working aggressively to support their efforts to move into areas of the south where they are able to have access.

QUESTION: Okay. So then – and the really key question is the safety of the people who are attempting to do this.

MS. LINDBORG: Absolutely.

QUESTION: And at what point are you going to pull them out if Al-Shabaab threatens the humanitarian workers here? I mean, how is that decision going to come into play?

MS. LINDBORG: Well, I think what you’re hitting on is the key fact that, ultimately, Al-Shabaab is the major problem in terms of enabling lifesaving assistance to reach the people of Somalia, and —

QUESTION: So there is this lurking concern about the safety of humanitarian workers; you just don’t know how great or how severe or how immediate it might be?

MR. WHARTON: Yeah. And it’s not so much – it’s not necessarily a lurking concern. I mean, overnight, the primary spokesman for Al-Shabaab has said that they would maintain their ban on certain humanitarian organizations working within south and central Somalia. So it’s a very real threat.

QUESTION: According to my understanding, Al-Shabaab, on the 5th of July, this month – the meeting in July —


QUESTION: — they (inaudible) humanitarian – so you can change the – (inaudible).

MR. WHARTON: Yeah. That’s right. I’ve got a news story here. Give me a second; I’ll find it. It quotes the Shabaab spokesman as saying, sometime in the last 24 hours, two things. First, he said that they completely disagree – the BBC news story, that they completely disagree with the UN’s qualification of famine in parts of Somalia – they think that that’s propaganda – and that they will maintain their ban on the activities of humanitarian organizations in those parts of Somalia under Shabaab control. This is – it’s sort of an inconsistency in Al-Shabaab’s approach to this humanitarian crisis – underscores the difficulty of the United States and the international community in delivering assistance to people.

MS. LINDBORG: Yeah. I would just add that it underscores the responsibility to – that Al-Shabaab has to enable humanitarian assistance to go forward. And regardless of their proclamation, we have sobering, heartbreaking evidence of what – of the famine that’s gripping parts of Somalia. And without immediate assistance, we fear that it could spread.

QUESTION: So wait, is there any attempt in the work to get an honest brokering here to try to deal with this situation? Is there any kind of liaison work to try to get past what this problem is? Or is it going to stay at this kind of standoff until some – until there’s – until it turns into a hot confrontation?

MS. LINDBORG: The UN has been working to try to negotiate access. Ultimately, we believe that it will – it’s not a monolithic organization. They don’t always speak with one voice. So you need to move in quickly in any and all areas that you are able to. And as we’re seeing from early efforts, there are places where leaders are willing and grateful for the assistance to come in. So we will continue to move as quickly as possible in all the places that we’re able to provide assistance.

QUESTION: Knowing that aid workers are at risk at every step? I mean, it would seem they’re facing – that active threat is on the table?

MS. LINDBORG: Part of gaining access is usually having a – some negotiated understanding that you’ve got access to that area.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay. Thanks. That clarifies it. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: I would like to ask a question. I’m (inaudible) with A and P from the Netherlands. For Mr. Brigety: Do you think that the (inaudible) last week indicates of emergency help getting out there? How do we ensure that it doesn’t get to Shabaab, they don’t get their hands on that?

DR. BRIGETY: There is not an issue with regard to Al-Shabaab intercepting aid assistance in the refugee camps that I visited in Dillu and also in Dadaab. But you are correct; there has traditionally been a challenge with regard to Al-Shabaab siphoning off assistance that is provided inside Somalia, as my colleagues have noted. And it is for that reason that both the UN and the U.S. Government have found it incredibly challenging to provide assistance inside Somalia.

So one of the things that, clearly, our government is looking for is complete, unfettered access inside Somalia in a way that’s safe for aid workers, as Ms. Lindborg noted, and in a way in which Al-Shabaab doesn’t take food out of the mouths of people that are starving to use for their own purposes.

QUESTION: Would you go into that mosque point a little more? How does it work on a practical basis?

DR. BRIGETY: Sure. Sure. I should probably ask my colleague, Ms. Lindborg, to address it since it’s (inaudible).

MS. LINDBORG: Inside Somalia?

QUESTION: Yeah. Just on – I mean, foodstuff being handed out, how you make sure it doesn’t get where you don’t want it to go.

MS. LINDBORG: That’s what the UN, our UN partners, and their (inaudible) partners are testing right now. And it is – it’s based on the assurances that we got two weeks ago – or the notice that Al-Shabaab gave two weeks ago that they invite humanitarian workers back in, recognizing the gravity of the situation.

I think the notice that came out yesterday from their spokesperson is evidence of the fact that they do not always speak with one voice. There are divisions within the organization. And it’s ultimately a negotiation that happens for a particular area. We saw this recently with news of the airlifted ready-to-eat food.

QUESTION: So if I’m correct – or you can give your answer to that – that makes it pretty difficult, then, because, I mean, what’s the area? There’s not a – like a corridor, there’s not a fence around a certain area, so that (inaudible) – it is difficult to control it, and they might slip something through it, so —

MS. LINDBORG: There’s – it is imperative that we move quickly with lifesaving assistance, and we – ultimately, Al-Shabaab remains responsible if there is not humanitarian access.

DR. BRIGETY: Our policy is to provide humanitarian assistance to the people in the – our policy is to save lives, and we will do everything we can to move food to those people who need it. And as long as Al-Shabaab will allow humanitarian workers to move in and deliver assistance, then that’s what we will support.

QUESTION: Let me ask just a little bit about the price of food inside Somalia, (inaudible). Actually, we are made – Somalia people who are not (inaudible) city, like (inaudible) are having to (inaudible). The people who import the food from (inaudible), and they are not (inaudible) by themselves, so (inaudible). Do you have any (inaudible) or statistics regarding the food price inside Somalia?


QUESTION: (Inaudible) that happens, even if there is a flood (inaudible), that people don’t have enough money to get access to food?

MS. LINDBORG: That’s a very good question. And through FEWS NET and FSNAU, they monitor markets in a number of locations inside Somalia, because oftentimes in these famine situations, there is food available but people can’t access the food, and it’s also very localized, so it will look different in each of these markets. The reports we are receiving is that the inflation rates are anywhere from 100 to 250 percent. So for families that are already stressed by failing crops or dying livestock, they simply cannot afford the food even though it’s there.

That’s why, what we’ve learned from our past famine responses, is we need to really move in three ways. One is to enable greater access to food; second is what – as I mentioned earlier, the importance of the health programming, given the high mortality rate from disease rather than just lack of food. So it’s clean water, it’s vaccination, it’s sanitation, access to basic health, and then it’s food itself. And in this situation, what’s most important are the therapeutic food, given that we’re already in a precarious situation, especially with children under five.

So you need all of that, and we are moving on all of those fronts.

QUESTION: Please define therapeutic foods.

MS. LINDBORG: Therapeutic foods are often – they’re also called – you may have heard of Plumpy’nut. It’s often a paste. Plumpy’nut has the right combination of nutrients that are essential for children under five or under two, especially when they are already experiencing acute or severe malnutrition. So it’s digestible, it’s fast essential nutrients.

QUESTION: What about the purple area – Uganda and Eritrea up here? To what degree are you concerned that – the severity of the problem, I think we’ve touched on Eritrea. But we’ve got loads of information from some places, and then to see it so starkly illustrated in this map that – you got no information out of these two places about how bad it is? Or, I mean, should we start to speculate or what – I’m just unclear on how it is that there’s so little information from these two areas and –

MS. LINDBORG: I’ll let my colleague answer for Eritrea because they’re not the same.

MR. WHARTON: Right. I’ve –

MS. LINDBORG: It’s a different situation.

MR. WHARTON: They should probably not have the same color. I’m not quite sure; I haven’t looked at that closely. The public Eritrea –

MS. LINDBORG: Would you care to have a look at it briefly?


MR. WHARTON: We simply don’t have that on Eritrea. The Government of Eritrea has not cooperated with the international community to tell us what’s going on. So there may be a terrible problem in Eritrea; we simply don’t know. The (inaudible) —

QUESTION: (Inaudible) say – put out a figure the other day that it may be as high as this, but we just don’t know.

MR. WHARTON: I don’t think we’ve talked about specific numbers at this point.


MR. WHARTON: I think we do have good data on what’s going on in Uganda. You may know more about it than I do.

MS. LINDBORG: It’s not considered part of a severe impact area, so it’s – we have data. It’s not being collected at the same level of specificity.

QUESTION: Because you know you don’t need to; is that —

MS. LINDBORG: Because the worst of the drought is really in this eastern Horn area.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay. That’s why I need my map. (Laughter.)

MR. WHARTON: (Inaudible.)

MS. LINDBORG: We’ll get you a new map, (inaudible) Uganda a different color.

MR. WHARTON: I think maybe the point that – the purposes of this map, though, is that they’re not collecting data actively in the same way, and so it’s just sort of left out of the more critical information.

QUESTION: Yeah. Okay, okay.

MS. LINDBORG: But Eritrea is a different kind of (inaudible).

MR. WHARTON: Yeah, different story (inaudible).

QUESTION: Okay. Got it. All right. Thank you for that clarification.

QUESTION: When did you first knew about this coming famine? And why is this help arriving now so (inaudible) when it’s almost – when it’s already too late for many people? Sorry, I was – Dorothea Hahn, Germany’s Tageszeitung.

MS. LINDBORG: We actually – I think you came in a bit late. We’ve been – almost two decades ago, we established the Famine Early Warning System, which works closely with the UN’s similar system called FSNAU. The U.S.-supported system is called FEWS NET, and it’s because this region routinely suffers from cyclical drought. One of the problems, of course, is that the cycles have shortened now from 10 years to almost every other year. So we watch very closely all the data that helps us understand through rainfall, crops, food prices, nutrition, malnutrition rates, what is happening and what might lie ahead. So we knew as early as last September that we were facing the potential of some of the lowest rains in what has now turned out to be 60 years of low rainfall.

We, as a result, have been preparing since September of last year along with the international community in terms of prepositioning stocks, increasing programs, doing all that we could to help prepare and to help mitigate the effects of the drought on those communities most affected. The difference is in southern Somalia where we have not had access, where the World Food Program has not been able to operate due to Al-Shabaab since January 2010. Around that time, both World Food Program and many of the major NGOs were forced to leave. So as a result, I think you’ll see an almost overlap of where Al-Shabaab has control and where the famine is currently and is feared to have the potential to spread.

MR. WHARTON: At the beginning, Nancy also pointed out that in part because of lessons learned in earlier food crises, the number of people in need of emergency assistance in Ethiopia is much lower today than it was 20 years ago. We reckon there are, what, 5 million people in need of assistance in Ethiopia today, whereas in ’91, ’92, it was something like 15 million. So we are making progress at understanding these long-term cycles and preparing to respond to them.

MODERATOR: Do we have any final questions? We (inaudible) fairly shortly. No? If not, I just want to thank the officials for coming. I thank you for – (audio ends).