A severe drought has plagued East Africa since mid-2011. The drought, the region’s worst drought in past 60 years, wreaked havoc on crops and livestock for the pastoral regions and up to 100,000 people died as a result of the drought between April and August of 2011. In September 2011, the UN reported that 13.3 million people were in need of medical assistance in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Today, there are still crises in regions across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda. Food shortages, malnutrition, and the unsanitary conditions of refugee camps continue to claim lives. Tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia have flooded neighboring countries.
Somalia was particularly hard hit relative to its neighboring countries. David Orr, East, Central and Southern Africa Spokesman for the World Food Program, told the HPR that because of conflict in Somalia, there has been a lack of humanitarian access to the affected areas. For the first time in nearly 30 years, the UN declared famine in regions of Somalia. Famine can only be declared when it is certain that at least 20 percent of households in an area face “extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope,” acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons.
The Need for Aid
The famine in Somalia sparked a global emergency aid effort. Celebrities such as Christina Aguilera made calls to action. Non-profits fundraised. Governments and private agents donated millions of dollars to the cause. Still, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that only 58% of the humanitarian requirements ($17.9 million) are currently funded. The situation in the horn of Africa is an emergency situation appropriate for aliment aid—direct food relief to save millions of lives in immediate danger.
Why Foreign Aid Should Not Be Controversial
Some critics believe governments are not doing enough provide aid to developing countries. Others are against foreign assistance altogether. As Richard Leach, President and CEO of the World Food Program USA, told the HPR, “If people really looked at the impact and at how these operations are run, they would become very supportive. I can’t imagine anyone who would look into the face of a hungry child and say ‘that’s okay, I don’t care.’” Opposition is generally due to a lack of information and common misconceptions.
Some critics argue that foreign aid prevents local communities from becoming self-sufficient. Foreign aid, however, cannot be viewed as a simple hand-out. According to Leach, the problems of hunger are multifaceted and the tools needed to address hunger must also be varied. Moreover, he believes, “Those who are deeply involved in these issues really understand the value that food aid provides in certain contexts, the value that cash to buy food locally plays in certain contexts, and the value of engaging small-scale farmers in other contexts.” For example, the World Food Program looks to purchase food from small-scale farmers, particularly the very poorest, as a source of food in school nutrition programs.
Even more, Orr says “assistance” is a more appropriate term than “aid” because the World Food Program “emphasis is very much on trying to help people be self-sufficient and on trying to bring some sort of sustainable help to people who are vulnerable or facing hardships.” While assistance can often be categorized as aid in emergency contexts, the World Food Program actually focuses heavily on combining work and food initiatives.
Other critics believe that there is no lasting positive impact from aid.According to Orr, aid efforts often involve encouraging “communities to build assets—[often] irrigation or water harvest systems–which will enable [locals] to withstand the impact of climactic shocks in the future. In other ways, we’re trying to in-build some resilience within these communities to future drought and break the cycle.” In fact, a lot of aid is focused on creating safety net programs to deal with chronic hunger, among efforts to fix other structural problems in impoverished areas. Leach agrees that, “Without safety net programs, when a shock hits a country or prices go up,” it is easy for a country to fall back into the emergency aid category.
Many critics also fear that foreign assistance resources are absorbed by corrupt governments. This is a mischaracterization. In fact, Leach said that World Food Program USA does not even “work through governments most of the time” and instead runs its own programs through local civil societies on the ground.” According to him, “The vast majority of resources do not go to governments. They go to civil societies and UN agencies—they go to those who actually, hands on, provide food in a bowl to a child.” Furthermore, there are agencies such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation that focus on working with very poor, but well-governed, nations. MCC selects countries to work with based on twenty independent indicators that come from organizations outside of the U.S. government.
The moral obligation of helping those in need is continually debated. As philosopher Peter Singer said in his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” The example Singer uses is that if a child is drowning in a puddle and the only risk in saving the child is ruining a suit, there is a moral obligation to save the child. Furthermore, Leach recalls that, “The vast majority of people in [the U.S.], based on polling that’s been done, feel that they and their government have a moral responsibility, faith based or otherwise, to not let a child die in a world where there is enough food to feed that child.”
In wealthy countries, such as the United States, economic hardship does not remotely compare to that of the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, the amount that countries give is hardly charitable (the U.S. gives less than 1% for foreign assistance). It can also be said that the wealthy countries developed through the years at the expense of the current developing countries by way of imperialism, exploitation, and attempts conserve the current global order. So aid can be viewed as more like rectification (of Robert Nozick’s theory) than charity.
Foreign Assistance is Domestic Assistance
Morality aside, foreign assistance is actually something that is in the best interest of the American people. There are two primary benefits for giving foreign assistance: economic gain and increased national security.
In order for the U.S. economy to continue to thrive, it must increasingly take a global perspective. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, outside of the U.S.’s borders lay “73% of the world’s purchasing power, 87% of its economic growth, and 95% of its consumers,” Steven M. Kaufmann, the Chief of Staff at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, told the HPR. Likewise, Leach agrees that helping a country develop means “creating the capacity in a country to be an active participant in the economy and the global marketplace—this is good for US business, good for US employees, good for the international trading system.” More developed countries in the world means more new markets from which to make profit.
There are also national security reasons for addressing global hunger. According to Leach, “Instability in one country sets off more instability beyond its borders. It costs significantly less money and people to deal with the underlying causes of instability than putting troops in a country. Even more, not only are we morally obligated to stop the neighbor’s house fire (or, in this case, hunger), if it can be easily done, but we also must do so for ourselves. As Leach said, “If your neighbor’s house is on fire, it could burn your house down, too. We are all interrelated.”
Photo Credit: UN Flickr