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Interview: Nora O’Connell of Save the Children

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A hunger crisis is raging throughout the globe, afflicting nearly one billion people. In the Horn of Africa millions are at risk of starvation in a region plagued by a severe drought and conflict.

High food prices and malnutrition are rampant in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, and so many other countries. However the U.S. Congress, as it plans its next budget, is proposing reducing international food aid. These cuts would impact the U.S. Food for Peace and other global hunger fighting programs.

Save the Children is one of the aid agencies on the front line of fighting hunger. Nora O’Connell, a senior policy advisor for the charity, talks about these potential budget cuts to food aid and what it will mean in the struggle to end global hunger. Most important of all, she answers how you can have your own say in determining U.S. food aid policy.

What would U.S. budget cuts mean to the already nearly one billion people worldwide who suffer from hunger? Are we likely to see that number go even higher?

The U.S. is the largest provider of food aid in the world. More than 35 million people receive direct food aid provided by the United States. The Agriculture Appropriations bill passed by the House would reduce funding for food assistance by $600 million, or approximately 36%. Its main impact would be to reduce the effectiveness of programs that promote security, stability, and economic development abroad. These cuts will have devastating consequences for approximately 12.5 million people. Any additional cuts will only cause more harm to more children, families and communities.

Save the Children has Food for Peace projects in Yemen and other countries. Tell us how your hunger fighting missions will be impacted by the proposed budget cuts.

Right now, we are particularly concerned about the drought in East Africa. Save the Children staff working in Dadaab, Kenya’s largest refugee camp, says that “hundreds of children are arriving daily from Somalia exhausted, malnourished and dehydrated.” Combined with soaring global food prices, the drought has left thousands of children in parts of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia malnourished and millions of others in danger.

Save the Children has a Child Hunger Crisis Fund set up for East Africa relief.

Some families say the drought and food crisis forced them to walk for more than a month through intense heat in search of food, water and shelter. Many discarded the few possessions they had along the way.

Fatuma, a mother of four, spent six weeks walking hundreds of miles to Dadaab with her family. Her children, the youngest of whom is three years old, walked the distance barefoot. “The weather was very harsh. It was so hot, and there was very little shelter,” Fatuma said. “Water was a problem. We had a well in my village, but it dried up. Then the one in the next village dried up. We knew it was time to go.”

Some 20,000 people have arrived in Dadaab during the last two weeks alone, a sharp rise compared with the average of 4,000 to 6,000 refugees per month last year. Around two thirds of the new arrivals are children, according to official UNHCR figures.

Save the Children has launched an emergency response to help children at risk from East Africa’s drought — the worst that many in the region have experienced in decades. Save the Children is treating malnourished children, providing food and water to vulnerable communities and working to help people cope with more frequent droughts caused by a changing climate.  

Save the Children and many other organizations rely on assistance from the U.S. government through a variety of disaster and refugee assistance mechanisms. However, the most recent House of Representatives budget would cut international disaster assistance funding by 34 percent, while cutting emergency refugee assistance by 29 percent. If such drastic cuts take place in the coming year, millions of children and their families facing drought and other hardships due to natural disasters and man-made conflicts would be put at much greater risk.

Some members of Congress have even proposed eliminating practically all funding for international food aid. Why are these representatives pushing such cuts? Are they just unaware of the magnitude of global hunger?

Save the Children knows that the U.S. faces critical budget decisions as it moves toward reducing its debt and spending money in the most cost-effective way to keep America safe and grow our economy. Being responsible for our future generations means not just reducing the deficit, but also making critical investments in children at home and abroad that give them a better chance in life today and create a better world for them tomorrow.

According to the World Food Program, some 925 million people do not have enough to eat, and one in four children in the developing world are underweight. The United States has always been a moral leader in helping to eradicate hunger and poverty around the globe, and doing so in a cost-effective manner. While Congress seeks to reduce spending, budget cuts ought not to come at the expense of children and their families who regularly go to bed hungry.

If all food aid were cut tomorrow, what would that mean to the U.S. effort to reduce federal deficit?

While many Americans believe that up to 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, the U.S. spends less than one percent of its resources on poverty-focused foreign aid. And of that, about ten percent is spent on food aid. To put that in perspective, for every one dollar that the U.S. government spends, roughly one-tenth of one penny goes towards food aid.

Completely eliminating food aid would do virtually nothing to impact either our debt or deficit. And it would not relieve Congress of the need to make the difficult choices required to alleviate the debt crisis. As Congress decides exactly where to make cuts, we urge them to do what’s right for children. Disproportionate and unjustified cuts not only hurt children today, they put our future at risk and move America further away from its values.

How can someone best advocate for preventing these cuts to international food aid?

The best way to help prevent these cuts is to get in touch with Congress and let them know that programs that fight hunger and poverty are important. Individuals can call, write, email, or tweet their members of Congress and ask that they protect funding for international hunger- and poverty-fighting programs. Communication from constituents is critical to building support for programs that protect children and families across the globe, and help build a more stable and healthy world. Several organizations are involved in working with Congress and their staff to educate them on the importance of these programs, including Save the Children, CARE, Bread for the World, World Vision, Oxfam America, and others.

You can contact your representative at www.house.gov or your senator at www.senate.gov.

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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.