Last month, eight large private U.S. relief organizations formed an unprecedented alliance to call Americans’ attention to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II: 20 million people at imminent risk of famine in four countries, including millions of children the United Nations says are “acutely malnourished.” Thinking of the popular anti-famine movements of the 1980s and ’90s, the groups enlisted support from big corporations and rock stars; the hope was to get through to the 85 percent of Americans whom polling showed were unaware of the crisis, and make a dent in the more than $2 billion deficit in funding needed to head off mass starvation.
For the most part, the two-week campaign didn’t work. Officials from the groups say they raised about $3.7 million and got more coverage than they would have working separately. But there was no eruption of public interest; news stories about the famine remain few and far between. The reason is fairly obvious: The continuing Trump circus sucks up so much media oxygen that issues that otherwise would be urgent — such as millions of people starving — are asphyxiated.
The U.N. tried to call attention to the looming hunger crisis in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria in March. Nearly six months later, the grim facts are these: Just 54 percent of the $4.9 billion the U.N. said was needed to head off a catastrophe has been raised. Though aid deliveries have pulled a state in South Sudan formally out of famine, more than half the population there and in Somalia need emergency food assistance, along with 5.2 million people in northeastern Nigeria.
In Yemen, the situation is even more dire: Nearly 7 million people are in danger of starvation, half a million children already are malnourished, and a cholera epidemic is ravishing the country, with half a million cases and nearly 2,000 deaths reported in fewer than four months.
Last month, the U.N. World Food Program fed a record 6 million people in Yemen — but only half got the full ration they needed. “The conditions on the ground are not getting better,” says David Beasley, the program’s executive director. “They are compounding and getting worse.” Meanwhile, he says, “we can’t break through all the noise in the media.”
The worst thing about this situation is not the lack of attention, or even the absence of adequate relief funding. (On the latter, the United States has stepped up reasonably well, thanks to an emergency appropriation by Congress this year of $990 million to fight famine .) The real tragedy is that, notwithstanding an exacerbating drought in the Horn of Africa, all of the hunger is man-made. The terrorist insurgency of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the civil wars of South Sudan, Somalia and, above all, Yemen explain why millions may yet die of hunger in the coming months.
That’s where the real responsibility of President Trump lies, too. His pathological need to focus attention on himself has created the vortex into which public discourse on vital issues such as this disappears. But his larger offense has been his love affair with the despotic regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are largely responsible for creating — and perpetuating — the food and cholera crises in Yemen.
The problem is this: About 90 percent of food and medicine for Yemenis is imported through a seaport, Hodeida, which is controlled by Yemeni rebels against whom the Saudis and their allies have unsuccessfully waged war for the past 2½ years. In the name of enforcing an arms embargo, the Saudis have blockaded Hodeida from the sea and also forced the closure of the international airport in the capital, Sanaa. Ships carrying food and approved by the U.N. are supposed to be allowed to dock, but in practice are often held up by the Saudis.
The result, says Joel Charny of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, is that the Yemen crisis “is not about aid or aid dollars.” It’s about the blockade — and the Trump administration is complicit. It is backing the Saudi war effort with intelligence and military supplies and, says Charny, “failing to pressure the Saudis to do basic things that would remediate the situation.”
Two weeks ago, the U.N. Security Council finally took action on this problem, unanimously adopting a statement calling on “all parties” to “facilitate access for essential imports of food.” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley issued her own broadside, saying that “we must hold governments and armed groups blocking access accountable.” Unfortunately, as Charny puts it, “that is not actually U.S. policy, if you look objectively at what is going on.” In fact, Trump is, in more ways than one, enabling famine.