Children run in a displacement camp in Dadaab, Kenya, Sunday, July 31, 2011. Dadaab, a camp designed for 90,000 people now houses around 440,000 refugees. Almost all are from war-ravaged Somalia. (Schalk van Zuydam/AP)

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on U.S. foreign aid, in light of the crisis in Somalia — with opinion pieces by Sen. John Kerry, Fletcher School Professor Astier M. Almedom, Share Our Strength Founder Bill Shore,Wharton School Professor Stuart Diamond, and Executives Without Borders CEO Robert Goodwin.

Twenty-seven years ago this month, a headline in the Washington Post warned that 200,000 were likely to perish from famine in Ethiopia. It prompted me to call my sister Debbie and urge that we try to do something about it.  We had both worked in the presidential campaign of then Colorado Senator Gary Hart. But the 1984 Democratic convention had just nominated Walter Mondale. We ended up starting an organization, Share Our Strength, to fight hunger internationally and in the U.S. We were out of work, but not out of ideas or ideals. 

Today the world is bearing witness to the horrors of another famine in the Horn of Africa. This past weekend, Debbie e-mailed me that “we gotta do something for those facing starvation and walking 100 miles from Somalia to Kenya.” Could it be that in nearly three decades, little has changed? Are there not better early warning systems and strategies for stockpiling food supplies?  Have there not been improvements in agriculture and development to reduce the severity of such shortages?

There has been much progress over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed: Humanitarian relief efforts still require vast amounts of private support when governments across the globe fail to respond sufficiently.   That represents a chronic and collective failure of political leadership. It is an especially sad statement about the strength, vision, independence and courage of those we entrust to help navigate America through a dangerous and troubled world.

As if those struggling to stay alive needed any more misfortune, the current famine in East Africa intersects squarely with the U.S. debt ceiling crisis.  As a result, the U.S. political establishment is in no mood to meet even the most urgent need with increased assistance. In fact the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations approved legislation to make deep cuts in foreign assistance spending. Two programs critical to alleviating suffering among the women and children who are victims of Africa’s famine – the Migration and Refugee Assistance Program and the Disaster Assistance Program – would both be cut by tens of millions of dollars.

Almost by definition, leaders help others to get somewhere that they would otherwise not get on their own. That means having the courage to be out in front of them, and the wisdom to advocate for investments that may not pay off until the long term.

Humanitarian organizations have become skilled in the art of moving individuals to contribute in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami or famine. But the greater need is for national leaders willing to use some political capital to marshal support for the long-term efforts that might prevent disaster in the first place. It is our political leaders, not our nongovernmental organizations, that are in the best position to educate citizens on the relationship between this long-term development and our economic and national security interests.

When our government forfeits that role, sometimes to Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn and other celebrity activists, no matter how well-intentioned and generous their philanthropy may be, we forfeit our claim to moral leadership in a complex and interconnected world.

Another thing that never changes from one tragic famine to the next is that the most vulnerable around the world remain the most voiceless. Their distance, invisibility and struggle to simply stay alive preclude the kind of political action to which Congress, in other circumstances, might typically respond. The victims of famine belong to no organizations, make no campaign contributions and, with few exceptions, have no lobbyists.

A situation such as the one in East Africa demands compassion, far-sightedness and generosity of spirit from a nation and its leaders – a lot more than Washington was able to muster during the current debt ceiling debacle. But those are the qualities of leadership required for any group trying to find its place in the world in a way that is sustainable and truly worth living.

Bill Shore is founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, an organization working to end childhood hunger in America.

In this roundtable:

Sen. John Kerry: Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid

Astier M. Almedom: With Somalia,what should really scandalize the public

Bill Shore: A chronic political failure on humanitarian aid

Stuart Diamond: U.S. foreign aid: Business skills needed

Robert Goodwin: A new strategy for solving America’s foreign aid problem