Conversations With America: Responding to the Crisis in the Horn of Africa

Cheryl Benton
   Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Johnnie Carson
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Sam Worthington, President and CEO of InterAction
Washington, DC
October 4, 2011

MS. BENTON:  Hello and welcome to the U.S. Department of State and Conversations With America, which is a discussion between top State Department officials and an NGO leader, where you are able to watch and participate in the dialogue.

Again, I’m Cheryl Benton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs. Today, we will discuss the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. We’ve received a great deal of questions and comments on today’s topic from all around the world through our blog, DipNote, and we have selected several for the broadcast.

Now I’d like to introduce you to our guests. Johnnie Carson is the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of State. He advises Secretary Clinton on issues concerning Sub-Saharan Africa. Thank you for being with us, Assistant Secretary Carson.

Sam Worthington is president and CEO of InterAction, an alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organizations with more than 190 members working in every developing country. Welcome, Sam, and thank you for joining us for this very timely discussion on the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.

I think now we’re going to put the map up of the Horn so that we – our viewers can see exactly what we’re talking about and referring to as we ask Ambassador Carson to launch our conversation and tell us about what the humanitarian community is doing to respond to the crises on the Horn, and especially the large numbers of refugees flooding into countries neighboring Somalia. So we have that map as the backdrop, and I’ll turn to Ambassador Carson now.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me say, Cheryl, thank you very, very much for being here, for inviting me here this afternoon. Sam, it’s good to be with you.

Let me say a little bit about the Horn of Africa as a region. It is probably one of the most complex and complicated and volatile regions in Africa. It is a region that has some 200 million people and more than a half a dozen states. In the last 25 years, this region has seen, repeatedly, drought and famine such as the one we’re seeing now spreading across Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. But more than that, it is a region that has seen enormous conflict across borders and intra-state conflict.

Nearly a decade ago, we saw Ethiopia and Eritrea go to war in 1998, in a war that cost a hundred thousand or more casualties and lasted for two and a half years. And we have seen Somalia, which has, in effect, been a failed state without a central government for the last 22 and a half years. Somalia’s absence of a central government has led repeatedly to large refugee flows across the borders, an uptick in illegal trade and arms shipments in and out of the region. And we’ve seen it also spawn terrorism and piracy from its shores.

Today, that region is facing an enormous challenge with famine and drought. It has hit Somalia hardest, but it also has impacted Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries that are very good friends of the United States.

MR. WORTHINGTON:  And in this environment, the world has had to respond to the first famine of the 21st century. La Niña has caused the major rains that should have fallen last year to fail, crop yields plummeted across the region, and right now, we’re seeing some 13 million people in need of immediate assistance. The heart of the famine, as you mentioned, is in Somalia, with some 4 million people designated as famine, which is a catastrophic failure of all food systems. We have emergency situations in Ethiopia and in Kenya.

The world has responded. There are millions of people receiving food at this point in time. If you take, say, Ethiopia, at this point, there are 8,700 therapeutic feeding centers in parts of Ethiopia, major interventions to address children and others in Kenya, because this is a regional drought and a regional situation. But the heart of it is in Somalia. We’re seeing close to half a million people in the Dadaab refugee camp on the border of Kenya with individuals also passing into camps in Ethiopia at the rate of about 1,100 people a day.

At the heart of the famine, we have an area that is difficult to access where people are being reached – we’re reaching perhaps slightly over 1.3 million people in Somalia at this point in
time – but there are at least 2 million people in Somalia that are not being reached. And as of today, we could say that some 750,000 people are at risk of starving to death if they don’t reach help.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON:  Sam, that is a good portrayal of the situation. I think I would add – one key factor is that the response has been significant, but the Department of State, led by Secretary of State Clinton, has been directly engaged in trying to alleviate this famine. The United States Government is the largest single bilateral contributor to the famine relief effort in the Horn of Africa. And to date, we have given some $650 million in assistance to deal with the crisis.

But in addition to dealing with the immediate concerns of trying to save the lives of starving mothers and babies and responding to the healthcare needs of refugees in Dadaab, which you’ve mentioned, and in other refugee camps in Ethiopia, the United States is also working very closely with the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia to help them to develop mitigating strategies that will assist them in being able to ward off and cope with future droughts that may arise. It’s not only important to deal with the crisis of the day, but also to help them to put in place the kinds of policies and practices that will prevent them from being susceptible to these kinds of droughts in the future.

MR. WORTHINGTON:  And it is this – building on this sort of recognition that we must be operating also in the long term, that the international nonprofit community is looking at broader food security interventions, better grains, better techniques. And we’re seeing in places in Kenya and Ethiopia where millions who could have been significantly impacted by this were not because of their practices and interventions by both governments to improve.

The challenge is in a place like Somalia, where, at this point in time, we have about 50 U.S. NGOs operating in the Horn, and they’ve raised about $60 million from the American public – not an enormous response for the scale of the crisis. But many of these organizations have been in the Horn for decades; they’ll be there for long term. And it really is this goal to make this transition from a famine, to put in resiliency and the capacity to be resilient, but very hard to do in areas where security is so hard to get – to deal with.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON:  Indeed, Somalia presents us with an extraordinarily complex and difficult situation made entirely worse by the presence of a extremist group called al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab has been responsible for making this current drought situation much worse for the people of south-central Somalia. They initially denied access to international aid groups, and then have allowed some to come in, but have extorted them. More than that, al-Shabaab also refused to allow many of the Somali communities under of their control from moving out and into refugee camps. The al-Shabaab organization is one of the most pernicious rebel groups, extremist groups operating in Africa today. And its actions and its policies have complicated an otherwise difficult situation.

MS. BENTON:  I wanted to jump in and just get our viewers involved in it, because we’ve received these DipNote questions from around the world. Abdirizak in Kenya writes the following question: The Horn of Africa has a long history of droughts. Throwing food aid into the region helps reverse the hunger, but it doesn’t solve the current problem. Is the United States willing to help Somalia in overcoming al-Shabaab and put in place a democratic government? Is that what the U.S. role is going to be, you think?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me say that is a very good question, and it focuses on one of our most important policy objectives, and that is to do as much as we can to support of the Djibouti political process, the Transitional Federal Government, and the AMISOM security force, comprised of Ugandan and Burundian troops and endorsed by the African Union. We believe that it is absolutely essential to do everything that we can to support a return to stability in Somalia.

Without that return to stability, we will continue to see insurgent groups operating in the interior, like al-Shabaab. We will see continue continued refugee flows. We will continue to see the piracy that is occurring off the Somali coast. And we will continue to see rebel groups like al-Shabaab harboring international terrorists like the al-Qaida East African cell.

I might also add that in the last two weeks, we have seen dramatically how these kinds of situations can be made worse, as we have seen the kidnapping just this past weekend of a French tourist from Lamu, a small island off the Kenyan coast south of Somalia, and two weeks ago the assassination and kidnapping of a British tourist from a resort area in northern Kenya, two people, tourists, innocently the victims of Somali terrorists. Stability on shore, the reconstitution of strong Somali state, is the only way to bring about renewed law and order and to bring about an end to the impunity which allows pirates, which allows terrorist groups to effectively operate from that country, menacing Somalis and operating across the border, menacing others in the region.

MS. BENTON: Is that your sense of it is as well, Sam?

MR. WORTHINGTON: You’ve given a very – a sense of the very tough security environment. And from an NGO perspective, where you sort of come in here as neutral humanitarian actors, and we look at this from terms of access. Can we gain access to women and children who are starving? Can we take steps so that when they’re on the move to a camp that they’re not – women are not raped along the way and there’s not systematic violence against populations that could really do nothing about that violence?

So we tend to negotiate, look at what people can do to help a specific population, but ultimately it is this broader political realm that will bring peace to the region. At this point in time, we are really in the business of trying to save lives. Even though we’re reaching perhaps 430,000 people in southern Somalia this day, we’re still a couple million short of those who could be reached.

And our fear is that we’re right now at the beginning of this famine. We’ll see things get worse between now and the end of the year. Even as the short range return, what would normally be a planting season – there are no individuals around to plant, there are no seeds, so we will see a extension of the famine throughout Somalia. In other places, in Ethiopia and Kenya, farmers will start planting again; we’ll see conditions go from emergency down to more of a crisis level and things begin to stabilize. But in unstable environments, our only ability to function is on trust of local people, trust of local warlords, and this makes for a very complex environment, and one where we really cannot reach those most in need.

MS. BENTON: Dhyana has a question that’s been, I think, on the minds of a lot of folks, who writes in from Florida: How can we get the general public to respond to this crisis? Are we crisised out? I mean, there have been so many explosive situations all around the globe. How do we get the public to focus? How can we ensure that money or supplies will reach their intended destination? The questions people have when they’re going to write a check or charge their credit card, they want to know is it getting there.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me say that this broadcast, as well as speeches that the Secretary of State has made, plus the Secretary’s participation just ten days ago at a major conference on Somalia hosted by Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon and by one of the senior leaders of the UN, Baroness Valerie Amos, are ways that we have used to broadcast the serious needs that exist in Somalia, trying to arouse the attention of governments around the world to be responsive to this crisis and also to raise public awareness to the issues.

While the response has not been nearly as great from the U.S. as in previous times, there are new donors and new supporters coming into this arena. And for the very first time in Somalia, we’ve seen a number of nontraditional donors step in and work alongside the UN agencies and alongside of the bilateral assistance programs that we in the United States have put together. There have been outpourings of support from the Turkish Government, from the OIC, from the Arab League, and a number of Arab countries. Their support and generosity to Somalia and to the Horn is relatively new, it is much appreciated, and is additive to the things that we in Washington and New York and in other Western European capitals have provided.

MR. WORTHINGTON: There is no compassion fatigue among the American public. The public wants to know will their dollars make a difference and can they save lives. And we know today that because of the generosity of the American people, both as taxpayers and individual donors, children are alive, a starving child is alive today, but who would not be alive without that contribution and that there are in the refugee camps, in feeding centers, in the building of shelter and so forth a tremendous impact of these contributions on the people on the ground.

But we know we have to go a lot further, and there are two campaigns out there right now. One is called F-Blank and it’s using the F-word, which is the word famine; it is an obscenity, it should not be happening in the 21st century. And this is with Bono and various actors in the one campaign getting out there. And the other campaign is the FWD. It’s Famine-War-Drought, which is at the heart of this. And this has been in partnership with USAID, an effort by some major U.S. NGOs who have been operating on the ground in the Horn for many years, have the capacity to respond, and are responding. And going to them, texting, or going to our website,, where you’ll find some 40 organizations operating in the region, are very direct ways that you can make a difference through organizations that know what they’re doing.

MS. BENTON: That’s great. So we have a question from Eunice in Maryland, and this is her interest, and we know it’s something the Secretary really has focused on during her tenure: What are the assurances that we can have that women’s health issues are not ignored and neglected in the Horn during this very, very difficult time, when we know during the best of times women and girls are not always at the top of the list.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me reinforce the notion that since her arrival at the Department of State nearly three years ago, the Secretary has placed a special emphasis on ensuring that women are part of our policy focus across the globe and especially in Africa. As a part of that emphasis, she brought to the Department of State Ambassador Melanne Verveer who handles women’s issues for her. Both the Secretary and Ambassador Verveer make a point of ensuring that everything that we do has a specific component that responds to the needs of women and children and especially young girls in Africa. This has been true as we have focused on the drought situation in the Horn of Africa and as we have undertaken our programs.

I might add also that approximately two months ago, Vice President Biden’s wife, Mrs. Biden – Dr. Biden went out to the Horn of Africa, visited the refugee camp in Dadaab, and, as a part of her program, made a special emphasis of asking about and determining the needs of young mothers and women who are particularly hard hit by this particular drought, walking in excess of two or three hundred kilometers with children and maybe even a child strapped on the back.

We have tried to ensure, through our USAID programs, that there was therapeutic treatment for young children, for young mothers, and a special emphasis on ensuring that they received all of the health care needs that they required. So the emphasis on women and young girls and children has been very strong under the Secretary and under Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who has been a very strong voice in the Department, including with respect to issues on the Horn of Africa.

MR. WORTHINGTON: And we’ve applauded this move by the Administration to recognize the centrality of the role of women, and for the longer term, because most farmers in Africa are women and it’s the role that women play as farmers that will ultimately play – make a big difference in the long-term stability of the region in terms of its ability to feed itself.

But women’s health also looks at issues of protection, of gender-based violence, of the tough circumstances that many women find themselves in, even after they arrive in camps. And it is not an easy subject, but it is a subject that must be paid attention to. And as we work with the UN and other agencies, this ability to provide spaces that are safe, and ultimately a better transition, but we’re not there yet. Violence is still a reality that many of the women face living on the ground, both in the camps and, unfortunately, on their way to the camps, as they try to survive.

MS. BENTON: We’ll go to another question. John in the United States writes: Shouldn’t the State Department actively espouse the claims of American expropriation victims in this part of the world when corrupt governments are the main obstacle to development and stability?

We got some good questions in today, didn’t we. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Let me just say that our number one foreign policy interest and pillar in Africa is promoting good governance, stronger and more effective democratic institutions, and democratic values and principles. Underpinning this is a respect for the law and a fight against corruption and those who carry out acts of corruption.

The United States Government does a very good job of defending the interests of American citizens, American corporate interests overseas, including in cases of expropriation. But we believe that good governance, good strong democratic institutions, help to underpin effective, strong societies in Africa.

MR. WORTHINGTON: And there’s been a sea change of understanding what works in terms of development of helping a society in the sense of a country-led development where a government in partnership with the U.S., with non-profit organizations, and others will set forth a plan of how they intend to feed their people over a coming period of time, how they intend to have a more resilient, food-secure system. And that government system is crucial. But we also look beyond that to, it comes down to a society’s ability to feed themselves.

The small-holder farmer, her ability to have access to water, to grain banks, to new seeds, all of that can only happen when there is some form of civic order, some degree of stability, and at the same time, a space for individuals to follow their dreams and to improve their lives. That can’t happen with corrupt regimes. It can only happen if there is a society that is vibrant, where individuals speak up against their governments, where they look for where there are problems, that they do so in a way that participates and shapes a society.

We are seeing these types of changes across Africa in many places, not everywhere. There are other places where we have a long way to go. But it is nice to have a framework that we can all agree on which is, in essence, a partnership between government, the people, and other donors to try to improve the well-being of those who are the weakest in a society.

MS. BENTON: Good. I think we have time for one more question, and once I read this question, I think we’ll put the map back up so that folks can again see what area of the continent we’re talking about. But Ray in the United States writes: I’ve seen news reports that countries were hesitant to allow refugees to stay in permanent structures. Is this due to the perception that if conditions are too good, refugees will not want to return back to their native lands, or is this due to financial insecurity reasons? Just curious, Ambassador.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY CARSON: Most refugees are -- really want to return to their homes. Most refugees have no desire to be forced out of their communities or their countries. Most refugees leave because they are in enormous fear of their lives and believe that the only way they can survive is by leaving the communities and the countries where they have been born. They desire to go back, and most refugees believe that they will only be away from their communities for very short periods of time. In many instances, and Somalia is one, where things do not get better quickly, and they end up staying for long, long periods of time.

I think we should applaud the governments in the region, particularly the Kenyan Government, which is playing host to over a half million refugees at Dadaab refugee camp, and probably thousands more in and around Nairobi, and between Dadaab and the major cities. I think we need to applaud the work of the Ethiopian Government as well, as they have opened their borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the area.

It is important to know that these governments bear a burden and make a sacrifice in bringing in these refugees. The international community is helpful, but it doesn’t cover all of the burden and all of the expense of any society. But we don’t look at refugees as individuals who are coming with a desire to stay someplace. And I think when they do come, we in the international community – UNHCR, USAID, the U.S. Government, all of the international groups – try to respond and try to give them the kind of appropriate shelter and living environments and medical and health and food conditions that will allow them to survive, and also not be a burden on the communities and the societies in the countries in which they’re living.

MR. WORTHINGTON: And you’ve mentioned 530,000 people in Dadaab, the camp, and you can imagine tents as far as the eye can see, and dusty winds blowing dust and dirt into people’s faces, and you end up with an environment which is a very rough environment. You’ve fled your land, your crops are dry, your animals have died along the way. Unfortunately, you’ve lost a child or a family member. You arrive at a camp, and that camp provides you with some access to clean water, some form of food. And over time – and not yet, really even shelter. Sometimes, people are living under small tarps. We are not yet on top of the refugee situation. We are handling hundreds of thousands. But in some camps, you end with 1,100 people a day arriving across the border.

These are not environments where people want to live long-term. They want to be able to go home. They want to be able start over, to plant food, to go to their community, to not flee because there is war and famine. These are environments that are some of the toughest and most difficult to imagine on earth. And we, as Americans, have reached out to try to do something with the broader international community. When conditions improve, these people will go home. These are not places where people want to stay.

And one can understand how local communities along the border don’t want, all of the sudden, a city of a half a million people there in their lands and so forth. So it is something of a – in a sense, a burden on the government of a state, but it’s also a burden on the local communities. All of the sudden, there is this enormous influx of very poor people, and those local communities are also experiencing food emergencies. So the programs have to be focused not just on the camps but on the needs that exist in Ethiopia and in Kenya as well, because this is, after all, a regional problem, and a problem where we’re slowly getting on top of things. But the scale of this is bigger than anyone could’ve foreseen, and happening at a pace that has been difficult for us, including the NGO community, to keep up with. So we have – someday, we’ll get to nicely organize refugee camps, but we’re a long way before we get to that circumstance.

MS. BENTON: Yes. You know what? I’m shocked that the time is up, but this does conclude our session of Conversations with America. I’d like to think Assistant Secretary Carson and Sam Worthington for sharing their knowledge and the work that they’re doing on this issue. I’d like to thank each of you for joining us, and especially the college and universities that we’ve asked them to tune in for the first time. The video and transcript will be available on very shortly.

We hope that Conversations with America will continue to inform the U.S. citizens about the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges of the 21st century. And I just hope that we can have another discussion on the Horn in several months, where we can show that there has been some progress.

Again, thank you so much.