President Donald Trump has long insisted that other countries should share more of the financial burden in tackling global emergencies. Now, a crisis involving four potential famines in Africa and the Middle East may test whether foreign governments will heed his demands.
Food and water shortages, caused by conflict as well as climate, are threatening to tip parts of Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan into famine, risking at least 20 million lives.
In the coming days, the White House is planning to rally other governments to do more to prevent the calamity, several Trump administration officials told POLITICO. The officials declined to offer details, but one likely forum for the president to make such a push is next week’s G-20 summit in Germany.
“This administration wants to demonstrate our global leadership,” said Garry Hall, senior director for international organizations and alliances at the National Security Council. “This is right in the president’s agenda. It makes America great because America is good. It’s in our national DNA.”
It’s not clear, however, whether other governments will listen to an American president who has proposed gutting the U.S. foreign aid budget and rattled even longstanding allies with his isolationist streak.
“It undermines our credibility as a global leader when President Trump pushes a budget that slashes our contributions to the United Nations, to refugee relief, to humanitarian assistance,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who often deals with Africa-related issues. “To demonstrate America’s sustained global leadership, he’s going to have to take some stronger action.”
The possibility that four famines could descend on the world at once is thought to be unprecedented. In South Sudan, famine took hold in February and lasted about four months before conditions improved, but the country remains on the brink of a relapse.
That three of the potential famines are driven by man-made conflict also distinguishes the crisis. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, is battling Houthi rebels supported by Iran. South Sudan, a country created in 2011, has descended into civil war. And the fight against the Boko Haram militant group in northeast Nigeria has spurred hunger there. The fighting has limited people’s access to food, water and land that they could cultivate. Peace appears remote in all three cases.
Somalia’s struggle has been driven largely by a lack of rainfall and a drop in household purchasing power as food becomes more expensive. Aid workers, meanwhile, point out that even though the risk of famine appears limited to Yemen, Somalia, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan, food insecurity also is a problem elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.
Attempts to muster a robust global response have largely fallen flat.
One United Nations push to raise at least $4.9 billion has drawn just $2.1 billion, or 42 percent, according to the world body. In recent days, the executive director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, David Beasley, has been making high profile pitches to the European Union and other institutions to step up their spending on the crisis. Beasley is a former South Carolina governor who supported Trump, raising hopes among aid groups that he can influence the president’s thinking.
Despite Trump’s seeming callousness on some humanitarian issues, he has at times shown a softer side. The same president who tried to bar Syrian refugees from U.S. shores launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime after being moved by pictures of children killed in chemical attacks. Others in Trump’s orbit, such as his daughter Ivanka, have taken up humanitarian causes. Beasley is reportedly hoping to use Ivanka Trump as a conduit to her father’s heart.
The U.S. has devoted more than $2 billion to anti-famine funding so far this fiscal year.
Trump administration officials, who in April set up an inter-agency coordination committee just to deal with the famines, acknowledge that the president’s proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 have muddied their messaging efforts. But they stress that those cuts have not yet become a reality, and that even if they do, the United States would still top rankings of overseas relief spending.
The officials expressed frustration that the administration’s anti-famine efforts so far have received little attention. In May, as Trump met with Pope Francis, he announced that his administration would devote $329 million in additional funding to fend off the famines. But news of the $329 million was buried under an avalanche of coverage about other aspects of Trump’s trip, such as what Ivanka Trump and first lady Melania Trump wore when meeting the pontiff.
“If the president was really signaling that our commitment had waned and that we were no longer going to address the needs of people that were suffering, some in extremely dire circumstances, perhaps what we would have seen would have been let’s halt, let’s reduce what we’re doing now — and that’s not what we’re seeing,” one senior administration official said. “What he’s saying is ‘I have a commitment to alleviate human suffering. We know this is happening now. Folks should be coming together to solve the problem for us.’”
Trump’s proposed cuts to the foreign aid budget are not likely to become a reality given strong bipartisan opposition in Congress. Regardless, the administration officials stress said they are committed to finding ways to make U.S. foreign aid spending more efficient. On the famine front, the administration is looking at expanding programs have helped make vulnerable countries more resistant to famines in the first place. One example: offering livestock insurance programs to help families protect their assets.
In deciding which programs to support where, the new Republican administration is also taking a closer look at which foreign governments have proven reliable partners — diplomatically sensitive conversations likely to take place in private.
“The new team came in and it was really an approach of ‘Let’s take a look at what’s been working and what hasn’t been working, let’s scale up the things that have been working, and we need to either adjust the things that haven’t been working or we need to end them,’” a second administration official said.
Aid experts, former U.S. officials and members of Congress from both the Republican and Democratic parties sympathize with the goal of improving aid efficiency. Coons and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently traveled to Africa to learn first-hand about the famine crisis, and both are promoting legislation to make overseas food aid delivery faster and cheaper for U.S. taxpayers.
Still, some question whether everyone in the Trump administration is on the same page when it comes to the importance of helping the world’s needy.
In mid-May, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, urging him to release $990 million in funds Congress appropriated specifically for famine relief in a fiscal year 2017 budget bill. Mulvaney is a budget hawk believed to be a major driving force behind Trump’s budget plans, and he has stridently defended its proposed cuts to foreign aid. The famine funds were eventually released.
“It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. It shouldn’t have taken a letter from members of Congress,” a senior Democratic Hill staffer said.
The Trump administration’s slowness to appoint people to key positions at the State Department and other agencies has undermined America’s ability to take a leadership role on famine relief as well as its hopes of bringing an end to some of the conflicts causing the hunger crisis, several stakeholders said. There is no senior director for Africa yet on the National Security Council; the leadership ranks of the State Department’s African Affairs bureau, too, have been dented.
“You go to these pledging events and you get low-level U.S. staffers reading talking points that are anodyne,” a senior official with a top aid organization said. “When you remove leadership from the occasion and don’t offer a substitute, how can we rally around that?”
“I can’t think of an example where the U.S. has laid down and played dead and others stepped onto the dance floor,” added Bill O’Keefe, a top official with Catholic Relief Services. “If we’re a wallflower, everyone else is a wallflower.”
Aid workers aren’t necessarily counting on the administration to step up. Eight leading U.S.-based aid organizations, including Mercy Corps, are planning to launch a mid-July campaign to raise awareness among Americans of the potential famine crisis. The aid groups are working with tech firms and other partners to amplify their appeal.
Even if Trump’s appeals come across as half-hearted, the prospect of mass starvation in some of the poorest parts of the world could be enough for other nations to rally around him, said Jeremy Konyndyk, who oversaw major aid programs under Trump’s presidential predecessor, Barack Obama.
“There’s the potential for this to be a good news story for this administration,” he said, “And for millions of starving people.”