'In the face of famine, we can’t step back'

Measuring a child’s upper arm circumference helps gauge her nutritional status. Photo: Joe Molieri / Bread for the World

By Jordan Teague

The world is on the verge of dealing with four simultaneous famines. Let me repeat that. Four famines.

At the same time. Twenty million people facing starvation in the next six months because of conflicts and drought in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. And that’s on top of the existing global humanitarian needs — already at record highs, with tens of millions of people displaced from their homes due to war or natural disasters. A crisis of this magnitude has not been seen in several decades. It is a test of the humanitarian relief system, and of all who contribute to it: will the global community be able to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths?

We are already behind, because by the time a famine is declared, as it has been in parts of South Sudan, the population is already in grave danger. By definition, more than 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished and the death rate has increased. People have already died of starvation.

Young children are more vulnerable to malnutrition than older children and adults. Even without famines or other hunger emergencies, about 3 million children younger than 5 die due to malnutrition each year. The number for 2017 is very likely to be much higher given the crises several countries are facing. Millions of children and their families are in need of emergency assistance for treatment of acute malnutrition and food assistance.

Now is not the time to turn our backs on our fellow humans in desperate need of help.

On March 16, the president released his “skinny budget,” which proposes significant cuts to the budget of the State Department, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). By significant, I mean nearly a third (28 percent). In any year, this would be a dangerous proposal that would have real human consequences. This year, any such cuts would without a doubt abandon starving people to their fates.

U.S. assistance for global maternal and child nutrition goes largely to treating acute malnutrition. It also supports efforts to prevent anemia and stunting (lifelong, irreversible damage to a child’s growth and development), promote lifesaving breastfeeding, and meet other urgent health and nutrition needs.

For fiscal year 2017, as part of foreign assistance funding, the administration budgeted approximately $256 million for maternal and child nutrition. Bread for the World often makes the point that the foreign affairs budget is less than 1 percent of the total federal government budget — you’ve likely read or heard that. The maternal and child nutrition funding is less than 1 percent of the foreign affairs budget. Doing the math tells us that less than 1 cent of every $100 in the federal budget goes to prevent and treat malnutrition among pregnant women and young children.

A 28 percent cut to this funding would be a loss of nearly $72 million. According to cost estimates by the World Bank, a decrease of $72 million in U.S. government funding for maternal and child nutrition would cause nearly 4,000 additional deaths from malnutrition each year, and nearly 68,000 more cases of stunting. U.S. government nutrition funding both provides treatment in emergencies for people with severe acute malnutrition and prevents stunting and other forms of malnutrition. Our assistance helps children survive and thrive.

Especially in the face of famine, we can’t step back.

The U.S. government is one of the leading donors of food and nutrition assistance to people in need. In 2015, the United States spent 3.6 times more on food aid than the second-highest donor. The United States is also consistently one of the top donors to maternal and child nutrition programs. That’s why a significant reduction in the U.S. contribution to these lifesaving efforts will mean a significant reduction overall in the world’s ability to respond to the needs of women, children, and families at risk of hunger and malnutrition.

In defending funding for development and diplomacy on the Senate floor recently, Sen. Marco Rubio noted that Scripture teaches us that “to whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48). Our government’s history of leadership means that any change of heart would be particularly costly.  

This is not a time to be pinching pennies (remember, less than one penny per $100) from some of the poorest people in the world. We must not only join, but continue to lead, the world in responding to these historic levels of famine, hunger emergencies, and malnutrition crises. We must support countries that have communities on the verge of starvation in their efforts to reach people in need — particularly the babies, toddlers, and preschoolers who are being hit hardest.

Jordan Teague is international policy analyst at Bread for the World Institute. 

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