Aid groups bypass UN in joint call to prevent mass starvation

As disease outbreaks raise the danger for as many as 20 million people faced with famine and mass starvation in a clutch of strife-torn African and Middle Eastern countries, some of the world’s largest non-government aid organizations are issuing a rare collective call for private relief donations over the next two weeks, alongside a longer-range, multibillion-dollar United Nations appeal that is so far less than half funded.

Without immediate help, the aid organizations warns, “1.4 million severely malnourished children will die.”

In effect, the new campaign is an attempt to put some humanity back into the world’s overwhelming humanitarian relief crisis, where intractable conflicts, tidal waves of refugees and debates about fusing development and humanitarian aid have sometimes blunted the traditional heart-strings appeals that galvanize American private generosity.

“It’s very hard to get people’s attention,” explained Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children and one of the forces behind the joint appeal. “We wanted to see if we can make a lot more noise.”

'It’s very hard to get people’s attention.'

- Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children

As usual, however, the U.S. has already been the biggest government responder to the heightened famine alarm. Last week, the Trump administration’s USAID office announced an additional $639 million in humanitarian assistance for the four countries, bringing the U.S. total of such aid to more than $1.8 billion since the beginning of fiscal year 2017.  

The coordinated private-sector appeal involves an array of the world’s biggest humanitarian organizations, ranging from Portland-based Mercy Corps to Oxfam to Save the Children and World Vision, calling themselves the Global Emergency Response Coalition (GERC). They have been joined by a number of globe-girdling corporations, including PepsiCo, Google and Twitter, and the asset management giant BlackRock.

Many of the aid organizations operate not only independently, but as “implementers” of major U.N. humanitarian programs in a variety of countries. But their new donations’ call is independent of the U.N. appeal.

Famine has already been formally declared in parts of northern Nigeria, as well as portions of South Sudan, and drought conditions have worsened already disastrous conditions in Somalia.

But the biggest famine driver in all four cases is man-made sectarian conflict, which shows few signs of receding, leading to mass displacements of people in Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia that are major contributors to the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Adding another ugly dimension to the crisis, major outbreaks of cholera are striking some of the weakened refugee populations in the four targeted countries; in Yemen, where the cholera crisis is described as the worst in the world (more than 300,000 cholera cases identified), food aid money has been diverted to medical relief, according to the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien.

Says Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam:  “We’ve seen complex crises before. But what is unprecedented is that all these complex crises are happening at the same time.”

The GERC appeal is just the latest attempt to galvanize rapid action around the hunger crisis in four countries:  Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and northern portions of Nigeria, which in some cases is driven by drought, but also by seemingly intractable civil conflict. So far, the campaign has not been going well.

Last February, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and an array of other top U.N. officials declared that they needed $4.4 billion in donations by the end of the following month to stop the growing famine risk; they go nowhere near that amount.

The U.S. also is supplying safe water, and support for hygiene and health programs to fight the disease.

So far, overall humanitarian aid to the four countries, according to U.N. figures, amounts to about $2.8 billion out of $6.2 billion required this year.  And they, in turn, represent only about a quarter of the overall U.N. humanitarian appeal for this year, which totals about $23.5 billion. Only $8.3 billion, or about 36 percent of that total, has so far been pledged.

(By contrast, the overall revenues of the eight organizations in the GERC appeal amount to about $3.9 billion, with roughly $1.4 billion coming from the U.S. government.)

Those numbers point to, among other things, an increasing climate of donor fatigue, brought on by the sheer magnitude of the world’s growing humanitarian crises, and the repetitive din of the efforts to confront them, interspersed with often-windy U.N.-sponsored humanitarian summits.

“It’s hard to break through on any of these things,” observes Save the Children’s Miles. She observes that the various aid organizations’ own research has pointed to a lack of American popular awareness of the international hunger crisis, which has traditionally sparked a generous individual response.

Meantime, the overall need keeps climbing. Overall, the number of people who need humanitarian assistance has virtually doubled since 2010, from about 53 million to 101.2 million, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Significant parts of that staggering tally are due to the ineffectuality of solutions to conflicts that continue to wreak devastation, such as the Syrian civil war, which has added millions of refugees to the global tally. The U.N. has asked for some $9 billion for Syria and surrounding countries in 2017, and so far has gotten only about $3.3 billion.

The numbers underline a broader problem, according to Brett Schaefer, an expert on U.N. financing at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington:  “If you take a look at the recent history of U.N. funding campaigns, you see a target dollar amount and then delivery of half or less of that number.”

“What this reveals is donor exhaustion,” Schaefer told Fox News.  “Part of the issue is that in the past, these crises were of short duration. Now we have semi-permanent refugee camps. This is the world we are in:  We have allowed so many situations to fester.”

The point of the new coalition response, in some ways, is to bring the focus of the aid crisis back to some of its traditional basics — including the possibility that a short-term appeal can produce tangible short-term results.

“We can definitely say that the kind of focused relief programs that we need to run in this crisis can definitely save millions of lives,” says Deepmala Mahla, South Sudan country director for humanitarian giant Mercy Corps. “We can provide seeds, we can provide money to replace farm animals, we can help provide water. We can help people to save themselves.”

“And we know that if we don’t, millions will die.”

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell