First, a quiz: What is the most important crisis in the world today?
A.) President Trump’s false tweets that President Barack Obama wiretapped him.
B.) President Trump’s war on the news media.
C.) Looming famine that threatens 20 million people in four countries.
Kind of answers itself, doesn’t it?
“We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations,” warned Stephen O'Brien, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief. “Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.”
How is Trump responding to this crisis? By slashing humanitarian aid, increasing the risk that people starve in the four countries – Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. The result is a perfect storm: Millions of children tumbling toward famine just as America abdicates leadership and cuts assistance.
“This is the worst possible time to make cuts,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, told me. He said that “the great danger” is a domino effect – that the U.S. action encourages other countries to back away as well.
The essence of the Trump budget released a few days ago is to cut aid to the needy, whether at home or abroad, and use the savings to build up the military and construct a wall on the border with Mexico.
(Yes, that’s the wall that Trump used to say Mexico would pay for. Instead, it seems it may actually be paid for by cutting meals for America’s elderly and by reducing aid to starving Yemeni children.)
It’s important to note that “all of these crises are fundamentally man-made, driven by conflict,” as Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, put it. And the United States bears some responsibility.
In particular, the catastrophe in Yemen – the country with the greatest number of people at risk of famine – should be an international scandal. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the United States, has imposed a blockade on Yemen that has left two-thirds of the population in need of assistance. In Yemen, “to starve” is transitive.
The suffering there gets little attention, partly because Saudi Arabia mostly keeps reporters from getting to areas subject to its blockade. I’ve been trying to enter since the fall, but the Saudi coalition controls the air and sea and refuses to allow me in. In effect, the Saudis have managed to block coverage of the crimes against humanity they are perpetrating in Yemen, and the United States backs the Saudis. Shame on us.
Likewise, the government in South Sudan this month denied me a visa; it doesn’t want witnesses to its famine.
In the United States, humanitarian aid has been a bipartisan tradition, and the champion among recent presidents was George W. Bush, who started programs to fight AIDS and malaria that saved millions of lives. Bush and other presidents recognized that the reasons to help involve not only our values, but also our interests.
Think what the greatest security threat was that America faced in the last decade. I’d argue that it might have been Ebola, or some other pandemic – and we overcame Ebola not with aircraft carriers but with humanitarian assistance and medical research – both of which are slashed in the Trump budget.
Trump’s vision of a security threat is a Chinese submarine or perhaps an unauthorized immigrant, and that’s the vision his budget reflects. But in 2017, some of the gravest threats we face are from diseases or narcotics that can’t be flattened by a tank but that can be addressed with diplomacy, scientific research, and social programs inside and outside our borders.
It’s true that U.S. foreign aid could be delivered more sensibly. It’s ridiculous that one of the largest recipients is a prosperous country, Israel. Trump’s budget stipulates that other aid should be cut, but not Israel’s.
The United States contributes less than one-fifth of 1 percent of our national income to foreign aid, about half the proportion of other donor countries on average.
Humanitarian aid is one of the world’s great success stories, for the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by half since 1990, and more than 120 million children’s lives have been saved in that period.
Consider Thomas Awiapo, whose parents died when he was a child growing up in northern Ghana. Two of his younger brothers died, apparently of malnutrition. Then Thomas heard that a local school was offering meals for students, a “school feeding program” supported by USAID, the American aid agency, and Catholic Relief Services. Thomas went to the school and was offered daily meals – on the condition that he enroll.
“I kept going to that little village school, just for the food,” he told me. He became a brilliant student, went to college and earned a master’s degree in the United States. Today, he works for Catholic Relief Services in Ghana, having decided he wants to devote his life to giving back.
I asked him what he thought of the Trump budget cutting foreign assistance. “When I hear that aid has been cut, I’m so sad,” he answered. “That food saved my life.”
Nicholas Kristof can be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof