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A famine is threatening 20 million lives in Africa. Trump’s budget cuts would make it worse.

A Q&A with humanitarian aid expert Michael Bowers.

Three woman gather around a bag of maize and one scoops maize into her bag using a bowl. ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

More than 20 million people in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen currently don’t have access to enough food and water to survive. The United Nations has already officially declared a full-fledged famine in parts of South Sudan and is warning that if “prompt and sustained humanitarian intervention” doesn’t happen soon, the three other countries could soon cross that threshold as well.

Unfortunately, that kind of intervention probably won’t be coming anytime soon. That’s because the primary causes of food insecurity in each of these four countries are ongoing violent conflict and a lack of humanitarian aid funding. Compared to natural disasters like drought, problems like conflict and aid funding are much harder to solve because of the difficulty in providing assistance and addressing root causes.

And it’s happening right as the Trump administration is dramatically rethinking the US’s role as a key provider of international assistance and proposing massive funding cuts to things like humanitarian food aid and UN peacekeeping.

I sat down to talk about the famines with Michael Bowers, the vice president of humanitarian leadership and response for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid agency operating in 40 countries around the world, including Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen. He was in Washington to address Congress about what’s being called East Africa’s “quiet famine” — one impacting tens of millions of people.

“We want to reduce that number and eliminate famine. It’s entirely avoidable,” Bowers said. “It’s entirely a manmade construct right now, and that means we have it within our power to stop that. Wars are hard to stop, famines are not.”

US help, he added, is vital, provided it amount to more than just words of concern.

“We want to not just have statements,” he told me. “We want to have results.”

What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Lindsay Maizland

How serious is this threat right now?

Michael Bowers

It’s very serious. This is the first time since 2011 that the world has declared a famine, which is a very rare and typically actually preventable event. Most famines nowadays are manmade, frankly. This particular one in this region is exacerbated right now by drought. However, when you combine this sort of nasty mix of conflict, drought, poor governance, and now lack of resources as well, it sort of adds up to a perfect storm.

Now, the context of why we have malnourishment in Yemen, why we have hunger in northern Nigeria, and why we have hunger now in Somalia and South Sudan are all different, of course, but there are some commonalities there. One is conflict.

In Yemen, people have nowhere to go and there’s a blockade at the ports so food can’t get in.

In South Sudan, you are dealing with a new nation that’s in the midst of its own civil war now. So you have that kind of governance problem where humanitarian groups can’t get where they need to go.

Now in Somalia, the good news — well, not really the good news, but the difference between 2010 [and now] — is that now there is a government in Mogadishu. There is at least some resemblance of that kind of entity [for us] to work through.

Now, 20 million people is a large number, and the tipping point for us will be typically when you declare a famine, [because by then] it’s almost too late to save people. Because you’ve already entered a realm where mortality rates have increased enough or the malnourishment for acutely malnourished people is at 30 percent.

So these indicators would indicate that people are already dying of lack of food — and sometimes it may be a lack of clean water, so they can contract cholera, or they’re more susceptible to diseases that would kill them. [It’s] not just food instability. And then you’re also dealing with another issue of stunting and issues surrounding the first 1,000 days of newborns’ lives being adversely affected by lack of food.

So it’s a big deal. Some agencies have been calling it the “quiet famine.” But you don’t have the news cycle yet reporting on it in large numbers. It hasn’t captured public attention.

Lindsay Maizland

You came to DC to meet with Congress. I’m interested in the role that the president’s budget has to play in this.

Michael Bowers

I think just the pace and the quick nature of what’s happening has us very concerned. That humanitarian accounts will be hit by large and somewhat arbitrary cuts, though the administration has not really detailed out in their skinny-budget who will be cut.

We do feel very strongly that should those cuts occur, it will mean fewer people will receive help. For instance, even in fiscal year ’17, the administration has put forward a cut of about $8 billion for discretionary funding streams [non-mandatory spending set on a yearly basis by Congress’s decision]. So for us, that would mean over $350 million for Food for Peace, which is part of USAID, would be cut.

And this is at a time where 20 million people are facing starvation. And that would lead to nearly 8 million people not eating, basically. So I think there are some very clear consequences of budget cuts, especially in foreign aid as it relates to both stability in these countries that are fragile, but then also there’s the human cost and what America means in terms of its leadership in the humanitarian sphere.

I spent the past 10 years working on donor issues with the UN. And believe me, when you remove the US from the room, it quickly turns into sort-of tier-two countries and tier-three who just simply don’t have the diplomatic and fiscal might to fill in those holes.

Can other member states do more? Of course. And I think that’s always a legitimate push that every president should make. But should these cuts occur, it would mean that fewer people would receive aid and more people would be forced to take strategies that the president himself doesn’t want, such as refuge-seeking people, as well as instability in areas where we don’t want instability.

The classic indicator of acute and severe malnourishment is when you begin to not feed yourself. So that mother, that single mother of several children sitting in a camp in Uganda or South Sudan, may even have a child in her womb — that means that child will either be born, or not be born — with malnourishment, and these other children that she’s caring for aren’t eating at all.

That is the real face of famine that ultimately we want to prevent, and not just treat as it occurs, because [then] it’s more costly and more people die.

Lindsay Maizland

President Trump’s budget emphasizes that projects will continue if they’re in America’s interest. You kind of touched upon how it will exacerbate refugee issues, but how are you able to argue that sending humanitarian aid for a famine in Africa is in the US interest? What is your argument there?

Michael Bowers

The classic argument, and the argument that I always go back to, is that it’s in the interest of humanity. The best interest in the US government, and the people expressing their will through that government, is to help humanity in need. This country was founded in part on that principle.

Though you can find some very specific geopolitical interests, and from a national security point of view in terms of extremists not being formed. You look at youth at risk, and we do that all the time in terms of profiling risk areas.

We do not want these fragile nations turning into failed nations, and failed nations turn into breeding grounds for other things that the international community has a hard time coping with, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan for the past 15 years.

But at the end of the day, if this country doesn’t have the political will and the human obligation to meet some of its moral standings, then I think that’s a serious testament to what the policy of the White House will be saying.

I’m confident that a lot of people from Congress understand that and a lot of people from both parties understand that, and have been deeply committed to food security for anyone around the world, not just Americans in this country.

And to have a world that’s better fed, better educated is better for America because we trade more with them and we deal more with issues on a normal basis than receiving refugees across an ocean and setting up camps and deploying our military to far-off places to stabilize [them].

I’m from a small town in Iowa, and when I go down for Christmas time, my mother always asks me to go to my local church to talk about my work. And how do I make all this policy stuff make sense? I go down and — I was raised a Methodist — and people ask me why they [the US] would do this [provide aid to foreign countries]? Well, why would you help your neighbor? Why would you not help the town next door that got flooded or destroyed by a tornado? These are all the same values.

When you look at how we lead in the world and how we exemplify what American systems and values look like, it’s just another reflection of that helping your neighbor. So it sounds maybe Pollyanna-ish at times.

I think it’s hard to interpret President Trump’s policy perspective on this right now. So we’re trying to focus on the facts and trying to focus on the growing needs of hunger and famine that’s already been declared, and there’s still time to address this. By cutting budgets that help all these other people, it doesn’t help the country. It doesn’t help the country in the end.

Lindsay Maizland

I’m from a small town in Michigan, so I kind of get that.

Michael Bowers

I mean, you just have to talk about it in ways that people will understand. There are a lot of organizations that spend time trying to discuss foreign aid to the US general public and it’s always difficult because generally the perceptions are that foreign aid is 20 percent of the federal budget when it’s actually 1 percent.

But I think at the end of the day, what I always tell an average American citizen is, “Do you help your neighbor down the street or do you help the town next door that is in need?” The answer is generally yes. So helping South Sudanese or Somalis is no different in my mind. And it’s something that most people will relate to.

Lindsay Maizland

The UN said they needed $4.4 billion dollars. What happens if those funds aren’t raised?

Michael Bowers

Their appeals are always based upon an aggregate sort of assumption that a certain number of activities have to occur in the next year, or even six-months, cycle. And these are agencies asking. So UNICEF needs clean water for children, UNHCR needs protection strategies, WFP [the World Food Program] needs food, NGOs need this.

So if the [UN] appeal is not fully met, it means all of those agencies get that much less. And that much less means that much more needs to be picked up somewhere else, or it’s not picked up at all.

For instance, WFP has a certain caseload of, say, a million people they serve in South Sudan for a monthly ration of so much kilo calories for a family of five. If they don’t get the funding they need, or if we don’t get the funding we need, we then have to make a decision based on vulnerability. Either lower the caseload or lower the rations. It’s simple mathematics. And ultimately that means more stresses on everyone else.

The appeal definitely matters. There’s a symbolism there that the world is concerned in standing up and helping out. And I think this is where again US leadership matters as well. If the US is seen as shrugging it off, why would other countries come to the table? On the other hand, if the US is saying, “Hey China, hey Qatar, hey Saudi Arabia, stand up and be heard in these areas,” that matters too.

Lindsay Maizland

Can you talk a little about what kind of response you got yesterday from people that you talked to?

Michael Bowers

The chair of the Subcommittee for East Africa [Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ)] reiterated the strong desire for a bipartisan response to this hunger crisis that we’re going into. And he’s been a longstanding chair of the committee and he’s championed a lot of issues around children’s nutritional needs. So I feel very confident at that level that he is dedicated.

He did remark that, of course, every president comes in and makes a change. Different administrations make a change, and we get that. We actually had the ranking member from the primary [House Foreign Affairs] Committee, Congressman [Eliot] Engel, come in halfway through, which was a little unusual, to basically reiterate that he doesn’t think they will cut these accounts in the way that people fear the most.

There wasn’t a lot of pushback for the overall demand and need. I mean, I didn’t see any skepticism from members on “this isn’t really real, I haven’t seen it on CNN so it must not be happening.” I think some of the members who had been to South Sudan understood the challenges of these environments, understood the nature of American interests being served both by the humanitarian channels as well as diplomatic.

So we did call out again, there was a strong letter from the Senate side to Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson to fill these vacancies quickly at USAID and the State Department. There’s a lot of vacancies right now, and that’s not helping. My speculation is that when you don’t have those kinds of intermediaries, they’re not voicing up to White House or other entities the consequences of humanitarian aid cuts or development aid cuts. The challenge is then how to bring diplomacy to bear when the State Department is facing a 30 percent cut.

So I felt at least cautiously optimistic that they got the message and that we just need to continue the drum beat. Because this famine doesn’t go away just because DC decides it’s not going to fund things. The hunger crisis doesn’t go away because the UN appeal is 30 percent met.

The headline news is 20 million people are facing starvation, and what does the American government have to say about this. And what can we do about this. We want action of course. We want to not just have statements. And we want to have results. We want to reduce that number and eliminate famine. It’s entirely avoidable. It’s entirely a man-made construct right now, and that means we have it within our power to stop that. Wars are hard to stop, famines are not.