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Clayton: Coordination Needed to Address Food Crisis

On returning from a recent trip to a famine refugee camp on the Kenya-Somalia border, Dr. Bill Frist, former Senate Majority Leader from Tennessee, commented that the Horn of Africa is undergoing the most acute food-security emergency in the past 25 years. He noted that the response to the crisis is improving globally but expressed concern that the magnitude of the problem vastly exceeds the supplies.

These concerns are valid and require immediate action on behalf of the Obama administration, Congress and the private sector to improve conditions and save lives.

The crisis is severe, particularly in Somalia, a country caught in the crossfire of a severe drought and the inflation of food costs complicated by violence. Many Somalis have been forced to flee to refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, desperately searching for food. But crowding in these camps has resulted in sickness, disease and death. American officials have reported that countless other Somalis are being forcibly held against their will, preventing them from fleeing to areas where food possibly exists. As a result, 29,000 children have died in just the past 90 days.

This famine is man-made and indeed a complicated situation — but not without solutions.

To combat this growing crisis, we need to take immediate action to get food into the hands and mouths of those who need it, using traditional and nontraditional means. The U.S. government this fiscal year has provided more than $360 million to respond to the drought and is seeking various ways to address the crisis. However, much more coordination through international organizations is needed.

We need to challenge the administration, Congress and the private sector to respond urgently and appropriately to the desperation of millions of people suffering in the Horn of Africa. America should take the same determined, coordinated leadership in this famine situation as we have taken in Libya but through peaceful means.

As we work to address the immediate needs, we also must work to find long-term solutions that will enable developing countries, such as those affected, to sustain their own agricultural development. As Jacques Diouf, director-general of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, has said, “If we want to avoid future famine and food insecurity crises in the region, countries and the international community urgently need to bolster the agriculture sector and accelerate investment in rural development.”

Right now, rules and regulations governing food production, trade and marketing, as well as limits on technology, are needlessly constricting supply worldwide.

For example, in the past year alone, palm oil companies from Southeast Asia invested billions in the fledgling palm oil sector in Liberia, with increased food security and prosperity extended throughout the country. But the sustainability criteria promoted by the World Bank undermines these developments by limiting expansion and inevitably raising food prices for all. The result is a dangerous situation with long-term effects, particularly in developing countries.

Meanwhile, critical agricultural development is being beset by policies that are outside the mainstream and do not seek to achieve a balance between regulation and economic development. These policies are ultimately hampering large-scale agricultural development that can help sustain the communities that need sustenance and economic stability the most. More interested in “reforming the system,” these policies and the organizations that support them reflect the dangerous tendency to oppose common-sense solutions in favor of grand visions of the way things “should be.” Meanwhile, people starve.

Similar to President Barack Obama’s deficit commission, the president should leverage the influence of his international stature to bring together experts and leaders who can develop a plan to fix such shortsighted policies in order to allow countries to grow and survive now and in the future.

In famine-affected areas, thousands of people are dying daily. In fact, more people are victims of this famine than all of the reported war casualties for the last two years. I believe that we must do all that is in our power to respond swiftly and appropriately to address the immediate and long-term needs of this situation.

Most urgently, the administration, Congress and the private sector must work together with the international community to get food to those who need it. We also need to make long-term plans and policy changes that will enable developing countries to combat this problem now and in the future.

Eva Clayton is a former Democratic House Member from North Carolina and former assistant director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. She now serves as honorary chairwoman of the Alliance Against Hunger.

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