As the State of the Union is upon us for 2012, let’s look briefly at history to tell us what should be atop the foreign policy agenda.
When the fighting of World War I came to an end on November 11th, 1918, there still was an “enemy” who remained on the offensive. The war had ruined agriculture and food supply systems, thereby unleashing the most unrelenting of foes: hunger and malnutrition.
Lieutenant Harwood Stacy saw in Poland such terrible conditions in infants that “looked terribly emaciated.” He said a basic item like milk “was as precious as gold.” A Polish hospital director pleaded for food for children “so we may supply the needs of these little ones who cannot comprehend why they are not fed.”
The American Relief Administration, backed by Congressional funding as well as donations from citizens, came to the rescue. Millions of children were spared a lifetime sentence from malnutrition that damages both mind and body. Without this aid World War I, which leveled enough suffering, would have led to millions more lives being lost.
All it took was providing the children meals, even similar to the “penny lunch” programs that had been pioneered in Cincinnati, Ohio in the early 1900s by teacher Ella Walsh. Another Cincinnati “penny lunch” organizer, Alice Wheatley, was also a supporter of the Red Cross during World War I. It was the Red Cross which provided school meals to thousands of children in France during the war years.
Now, nearly 100 years later, a different hunger crisis is unfolding that demands to be the top foreign policy priority. For hunger has started a new and powerful offensive against the poor and vulnerable. Last year a massive drought occurred in East Africa placing over 13 million people at risk of starvation. That crisis is ongoing and humanitarian aid has to keep flowing. However, there is drought striking large parts of West Africa as well.
People in Niger, Chad, Mauritania and other parts of the Sahel region of Africa are feeling the effects of reduced harvests and high food prices. A massive humanitarian disaster waits around the corner if we do not act now.
In some parts of Yemen, a country known in the U.S. as a haven for Al Qaeda, child malnutrition rates rival those of famine-ravaged Somalia. Aid agencies, which rely on voluntary donations, cannot keep up with the growing tragedy.
In the new nation of South Sudan, conflict among tribes continues to leave many people hungry and displaced. Peace has not yet been achieved with neighboring Sudan. To add to this, drought has struck. In North Darfur, according to the UN World Food Programme, the “overall food security situation has considerably deteriorated compared to November 2010.” Poor harvests and high food prices now strike at a population trying to build peace.
In Afghanistan, a country devastated by years of conflict, drought hit 14 provinces last year. Low funding for aid agencies led to a reduction in food and agricultural assistance to the needy population. Food for peace therefore has a limited reach when it’s most needed.
In 2012 America’s top foreign policy objective should be to rehabilitate the children of drought and conflict across the globe. For if we do not, we give up on peace and stunt the future of so many suffering countries.
This is not an insurmountable challenge. It is far less expensive than war. But it needs to get on the agenda of our leaders in Washington and in the public conscience as it did after World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Feeding the children of “drought and conflict” is the U.S. foreign policy mission for this new year.