Children are some of the most affected by the famine in Somalia. Photo of internally displaced Somalis by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images.
NEW YORK CITY | The U.S. Agency for International Development announced a new website initiative called “Forward” this week aimed at giving viewers a better sense of the scope of the famine in the Horn of Africa — its worst in more than 60 years.
An estimated 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are threatened by the drought and famine, and over the next five months, more than 750,000 people are on the “verge of potential death,” USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah told a group of reporters Monday. Children are dying at a rate of three per 10,000 every day from malnutrition, and humanitarian groups are hindered in reaching them by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which controls certain areas in absence of an effective government, he said.
The agency’s new data maps are intended to contextualize the problem by showing the recent increase in food prices, where internally displaced peoples camps are located, and where various aid groups are operating.
We asked Shah more about the new initiative and the situation in Somalia (answers edited for length):
Has the United States’ lifting of legal restrictions on aid groups dealing with groups like al-Shabab made a difference?
RAJIV SHAH: The challenge all along has not been American legal restrictions. It’s been poor humanitarian access in Somalia. And we have long before the August evolution of our policy made it quite clear to partners that partners conducting basic humanitarian operations would receive the support and encouragement of the United States government, and we are not going to prosecute them for doing that.
I think it’s helped a little bit, but I don’t think it’s helped as much as people might think because the challenge was not that some legal restriction was preventing them from doing work. The challenge is that 14 World Food Program people were killed trying to deliver food to needy children over the last two years, which is why they had to reduce the scale of their operations. The challenge is that physical transport of commodities that are seen as potentially valuable like food through parts of south and central parts of Somalia is highly dangerous in the current environment.
So unfortunately any legal maneuvering is unlikely to enable a big shift in access. It’s really local governments that have to make the determination that they will stop standing in the way of their people’s survival.
What’s new about this year’s USAID campaign?
RAJIV SHAH: The open-source data. We’re tracking food prices in hundreds of markets throughout the Horn of Africa, and we can show you that in some parts of Kenya, prices are up 50 and 60 percent, in some parts of Somalia, prices are up 180, 250, 200 percent. That means mothers stop eating, and then they have no other choice but to deprive their children of basic food, basic nutrition.
Our hope is by making the story and making all of the data that we have accessible, live and in real-time, that we’ll unlock a great deal of ingenuity and enterprise in trying to address these problems.
Where does the data for the maps come from?
RAJIV SHAH: The data is actually pretty good on food prices. All you need to do is be in a market and have someone text you what the food prices are. The other data that is surprising to people but is also very good is from health clinics on epidemiology related to diarrheal disease. Sometimes the data will come from our partners — in this case there are two systems: the famine early warning system, FEWS NET, and another network called FSNAU, so we can cross-check it.
We have data, and we’re going to try to make it available, of satellite imagery that shows where groundwater is and what rainfall looks like.
What do you think of the progress of this week’s U.N. meetings on non-communicable diseases?
RAJIV SHAH: As countries and health systems develop, it is entirely appropriate for the global community to come together and really understand how we can expand support for and technical partnerships to improve the way countries address non-communicable diseases.
But I also believe that it’s important that we stay focused, and the challenge and opportunity largely comes from communicable disease management. If we’re going to save 4 million kids’ lives a year and do it at a very high degree of cost-efficiency and effectiveness, that’s HIV, malaria, communicable diseases and respiratory and diarrheal illness. So we need to maintain a focus on that to get that job done.