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Ringing the alarm in Congress: 20 million lives at risk due to famine

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Last week we watched as President Trump did an about-face on his “American First” agenda by pursuing a military response after being moved by photos of Syrian children killed by a sarin gas attack. Now, his isolationist rhetoric is facing another major test of leadership as four nations are experiencing or on the brink of famine in what the United Nations has called “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world since the UN’s formation in 1945.”  The question now becomes whether pictures of starving mothers who are too weak to nurse their starving children will move him to take decisive action and provide emergency humanitarian assistance.

The United Nations reports that 20 million people are at risk of starvation. A civil war has led to a declaration of famine in the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, while three others–Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen–are at risk of famine; two of which, Nigeria and Yemen, are also facing famine due to ongoing conflicts. In each country, funding remains dangerously short of what is needed to mitigate disaster.

{mosads}This president has an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to bring people together by immediately acting on an issue with growing bipartisan and bicameral support in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats are proposing supplemental funding to address famine in South Sudan and to prevent famine in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. President Trump should signal to the world that the U.S. will respond and voice his support for a supplemental funding bill to address this crisis.

The United States has long played a leadership role when vulnerable nations have experienced manmade or natural disasters. In 2003, President Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that saved millions of lives in Africa and around the world. President Obama mobilized the international community to respond to the Ebola crisis. Now, President Trump has the opportunity to step out on the world stage and declare that the United States will continue to play a leadership role in the face of this humanitarian crisis.

If President Trump is not moved by the sheer scale of human suffering, and the daily starvation deaths of children then perhaps the national security threat and international refugee crisis will move the administration to act. Conflict with Boko Haram is the primary cause for near-famine conditions in northeast Nigeria. In 2015, the terrorist cell was responsible for more death than ISIS. The ongoing civil wars in Yemen and South Sudan pose a risk of destabilizing the surrounding countries. Although conditions in Somalia are far better today than during the famine crisis of 2011, Al Shabaab continues to terrorize the population. All four countries will be more vulnerable to the influence of terrorists if the world fails to immediately respond to the severe humanitarian crisis. Starving people will do whatever they need to do in order to survive and if the international community does not respond to this crisis, there is every reason to expect an increase in the mass migrations to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

When Congress returns, we will debate how to continue funding the U.S. government. Instead of making polarizing demands for funding the wall or defunding the Affordable Care Act, President Trump has the opportunity to support lifesaving supplemental funding that is being proposed on a bipartisan basis. In the House, legislation calling on the US government to act immediately moved out of committee with a unanimous vote and is now awaiting a vote on final passage. Last week, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) sent a letter to appropriators calling for $1 billion in emergency assistance and Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) recently introduced a resolution calling on Congress to act swiftly to address the famine in the four countries. 

Thus far, the potential starvation of 20 million people has not grabbed the attention of the world. And given that the president’s proposed budget slashes foreign assistance by more than 30 percent, it is not clear whether the Trump administration is particularly concerned. In 2011, it took more than 200,000 people to starve to death in Somalia before the world responded. President Trump has a rare opportunity to demonstrate his ability to lead by saving the lives of millions of children and addressing a humanitarian crisis in a unified fashion. We can–and should–end famine now.

Rep. Bass is ranking member of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, introduced a bipartisan resolution in March to increase USAID emergency funding to address growing famine in South Sudan. The bill now is awaiting a vote on final passage. Bass represents California’s 37th District, which comprises of Culver City, West Los Angeles, and South Los Angeles.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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