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Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield says Somalia needs urgent care to avoid another famine

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, sits on a military transport plane as it prepares to depart from Mogadishu, Somalia.
Cara Anna
/
AP
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, sits on a military transport plane as it prepares to depart from Mogadishu, Somalia.

Updated February 1, 2023 at 10:06 AM ET

Millions of people in Somalia and the greater Horn of Africa are on the verge of starvation. The country is bracing for its second famine since 2011 and many predict it will be worse than the last.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told NPR hunger, drought and fighting in Somalia are "a perfect storm of food insecurity."

Famine is a recurrence in East Africa; Somalia declared famine in 2011, killing a quarter of a million people. Al-Shabab's hostility to aid efforts was a major factor. A two-year drought has devastated crops leaving herders without food to feed their animals.

The U.N. now estimates that more than 1.7 million Somalis have been displaced from their homes. Many sought humanitarian assistance in urban camps while others crossed the border to Kenya or Ethiopia.

Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militant group, is another reason people believe this famine will be worse.

In southern Somalia, al-Shabaab controls the roads leading into major cities, including Baidoa. These roadblocks allow Al-Shabaab control over the merchants, money and food in the region. The group selects which wholesalers can bring in food from the capital, Mogadishu, and taxes local business owners, which leads to food shortages and higher prices for staple crops. Most Somalis can not afford the Al-Shabaab's demands.

In 1993, Thomas-Greenfield served as the refugee coordinator in the Horn of Africa for the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. As she trekked through refugee camps in Mogadishu years ago, she witnessed the effects of recurring famines and the heavy burden of displacement on Somalis. She returned to East Africa on Sunday to strengthen the United States' alliance with Somalia.

In a conversation on Morning Edition, she told Steve Inskeep the international community has to work with "a sense of urgency" to avoid another famine in Somalia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the Dadaab Refugee Camp in 1993

I remember the lack of joy in people's eyes because people were fleeing. Mothers were holding babies who had not had enough food. They were describing incidents of rape. Many of them were kicked out by their families. But the most difficult thing I saw was watching a young girl who looked like a baby. I found out later she was two years old. She died in front of my eyes.

Somalia has faced hunger before. Thomas-Greenfield on why this famine might be worse

The issue of hunger has been an issue for some time, but it was certainly made more dire by the war in Ukraine. It was made equally difficult by significant climatic changes. We heard when we were in Kenya that they've had five consecutive failed rainfalls. And what that means is that people cannot grow the food that they need to eat. And the sixth rainfall is scheduled to take place in the March, April timeframe, and the predictions are dire.

So combine that with the war in Ukraine and then conflict this taking place in Somalia and in the region. And you have a perfect storm of food insecurity.

On the effects of war, insurgence and drought on East Africa

Well, you're dealing with conflict so people cannot grow their products when they're being forced from their homes. People are already living subsistence lives. Anything that happens that might impact their ability to survive is almost a death notice.

Ukraine was a net exporter of wheat. They still had wheat in ships and wheat in silos that were not being shipped overseas. That wheat also has affected the food insecurity that's taking place in the Horn of Africa.

On the international community

We have to work with much more a sense of urgency to address these food insecurity crises. We have enough food in the world to feed people and we have to find a way. We have to use the tools that we have at hand to ensure that we get food to people where they need it and we can do it. So we just have to work smarter. We have to work more consistently.

I made a call of desperation to the rest of the world to join us in this fight so that we don't ever have to watch a young child die in front of our eyes.

This interview with Linda Thomas-Greenfield was produced by Taylor Haney and edited by Simone Popperl. The digital version was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
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