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Preventing the Next Famine In Africa

Americans have watched in horror as all-too-familiar scenes flash across our television sets from the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa. The tragic images of innocent children dying and whole families and communities fleeing the effects of famine are terrible. The scene is something we as Americans can scarcely imagine.

Non-government organizations (NGOs), the U.S. government, and the World Food Program are racing to stem the tide of starvation, rushing in emergency food aid and providing shelter to the tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing from Somalia into neighboring Kenya

One difference about this response, though, is that we are beginning to employ initiatives to anticipate future famines and lessen the devastation. Through smart investments in efficient, innovative agriculture programs, we can put into practice a forward thinking plan to prevent future famines, saving lives and promoting stability at the same time. We know that such initiatives can work because similar actions in the past decade are a major reason why Ethiopia is not suffering devastation as massive as that now afflicting Somalia—and has afflicted Ethiopia in the past.

Whether it is in Africa or Haiti or Southeast Asia, America has a proud tradition of being the first on the ground in humanitarian crises, providing support to those most in need. In these missions, we demonstrate the very best of America and our true values as a nation. During this particular crisis, we are seeing the results of processes we have put in place through U.S. development efforts. Because of this funding from the U.S. International Affairs Budget, lives are being saved.

Our agriculture efforts in the Horn of Africa are building alliances and helping local families make a living, so that sustainable societies can develop and alleviate the devastating effects of famine that are exacerbated by instability. When farmers can work the land and provide for their families, they don’t have to rely on war lords or the appeal of terrorist organizations like al-Shabab.

After the last East African famine in 2002, leaders had the insight to invest in long-term programs that have delivered astonishing results, including the Famine Early Warning System Network. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted, the number of Ethiopians at risk of starvation in that previous famine was 13 million, while in the midst of today’s crisis, that number has been slashed by more than 60 percent to 5 million.

Of course, 5 million people in urgent need of aid is still a disaster, and one we must work to address before the next famine hits. Innovative U.S. development efforts in the food security area are revolutionizing agriculture and working to end the cycle of famine in the Horn of Africa. Efforts cover the full cycle of planting, harvesting, selling and consuming food products. Farmers gain better access to fertilizers and improved seeds that withstand droughts and work to provide modern storage facilities so huge percentages of crop yields are not just left to spoil.

We may not be able to control Mother Nature, but with these simple advances, we can make sure cyclical droughts do not always lead to devastating famines. By planning ahead, and investing a small amount in prevention now, we save lives and money down the road.

Although the programs we have invested in have been successful, the International Affairs Budget is facing very real cuts in the current budget negotiations. As a result, all of our progress is under threat. Recent legislation would slash food assistance by up to 30%, a dramatic reduction with devastating effects on our ability not only to respond to unfolding humanitarian disasters, but to continue programs that prevent the next crisis before it hits.

There is an historic tradition of bipartisanship when it comes to our foreign assistance programs, from Presidents Roosevelt to Reagan, and Eisenhower to Obama. In fact one of the major threads of commonality in administrations from both parties is the critical impact these efforts have in strengthening America's influence in the world, and in the process saving millions of lives.

President Bush began major initiatives for HIV/AIDS and hunger in Africa, and the Obama administration is continuing these efforts with innovative programs such as the Feed the Future Initiative. As we approach the serious fiscal issues facing our country and set priorities, it is our hope that Congress and the administration will continue to recognize the bipartisan tradition of support from previous years and decades for our international affairs programs.

With our combined experience in international food aid and disaster relief, we are still heartbroken each time we see pictures from the latest famine in East Africa. But with a small, efficient investment in cutting-edge programs today, we can work towards a day when these devastating images are seen in history books rather than the evening news. That is an investment worthy of America.

Dan Glickman served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995-2001 and represented the 4th District of Kansas from 1977-1995. Dr. George Rupp is the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Both are Board Members of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.