Below is an excerpt from Alex de Waal’s “open letter to Gayle Smith, nominee for USAID administrator,” published by the Boston Review, June 15, 2015.


I know you had enormous respect for Meles Zenawi. Remember his central argument when he wrote Ethiopia’s national security doctrine: poverty was the main threat. It followed that development and democracy were the central planks of national security—the size and posture of the army were entirely secondary to those.

This is my bigger point. Under the Obama Administration, foreign policy has been driven by national security and concern over domestic opinion polls. Humanitarian issues, democratization, development, and resolving armed conflicts get on the agenda only when the Pentagon and CIA have had their say. That is glaringly obvious in Africa and the Middle East. You more than anyone should know that a security policy that relies overwhelmingly on military and intelligence instruments and has no wider economic and political strategy is doomed to fail, and to wreak havoc in doing so.

At USAID there’s one simple thing you can commit to, and a few more difficult things you can try. The simple thing is to pledge no famine on your watch. This should be a straightforward, non-partisan commitment.

Four years ago, perhaps 250,000 people—most of them children—died of hunger and disease in Somalia. It was the kind of famine we are familiar with: a lethal combination of crop failure (due to drought), high food prices (due to breakdown of markets), war (an African coalition against the Islamist militants of Al-Shabaab), and the abusive and extractive policies of Al-Shabaab themselves. But while the famine intensified, the United States scaled back its aid. The fear was that aid would get into the hands of the militants. And U.S. counter-terror legislation meant that any independent humanitarian agency trying to do the same thing risked being prosecuted for directly or indirectly supporting terror. The Administration reversed course, provided aid and relaxed its restrictions—but too late.

That famine is a dark stain on America’s moral standing and reputation. It should never have been allowed to happen. Yes, it’s true: if you provide famine relief to civilians in Al-Shabaab’s areas, you are likely to feed Al-Shabaab’s fighters too. But whatever tactical losses that incurs—and it’s almost unheard of for a rebel movement or rogue regime to be starved into submission—are insignificant compared to the larger gains of stopping starvation. And so it proved in Somalia, as it did in North Korea in the 1990s, when some Washington pundits seriously proposed starving the North Koreans into submission, and fortunately did not prevail.

If famine threatens, USAID should be providing food for Yemenis, North Koreans—and, yes, civilians under the control of the Islamic State as well. To tolerate famine from political calculus is both ethically wrong and politically shortsighted. That’s a line that should never be crossed.

The full piece is available through the Boston Review.

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *