June 26, 2017; Washington Post
In his op-ed, “No one is paying attention to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor at the Washington Post, reminds us that approximately twenty million people face starvation in the coming months without an immediate injection of billions of dollars in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. The hardest hit is Yemen, now also facing “the worst cholera outbreak in the world.” Of the more than $6.3 billion needed to manage this crisis, only $1.9 billion has been committed to date.
In a UN Security Council briefing last March, Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, gave this assessment of the humanitarian situation.
That resource gap could be attributed to donor fatigue, or to the sheer size of the need. But, in part, it’s a simple lack of awareness. “We can’t seem to get anyone’s attention to what’s going on,” says Carolyn Miles, the president and chief executive of Save the Children.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” says David Beasley, the former South Carolina governor who heads the U.N. World Food Program. “The last eight to 10 months the world has been distracted. It’s all Trump, Trump, Trump…and here we are in crisis mode.”
Diehl offers a summary of the causes of this humanitarian crisis, where progress is and is not being made, and how the U.S. fits into that overall picture. Diehl ends his op-ed with this call-to-action.
Famines used to attract broad interest in the West. Rock stars led relief campaigns, and television networks produced special documentaries. U.S. nongovernmental organizations are looking for ways to similarly galvanize the country this summer. Millions of lives may depend on whether they can find a way to command attention in the age of Trump.
Diehl is referring to the popular response to the 1983–1985 famine in Ethiopia, when, in 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure founded Band Aid that led to the creation of Live Aid the following year. Much credit is rightly given to BBC journalist Michael Duncan Buerk for his insistent reporting of the Ethiopian famine that inspired Geldof and others to act. Little is known about Mohamed “Mo” Amin, the photojournalist who gave Buerk his material to report.
In 1985, AmeriCares, an NGO responding to the Ethiopian famine by flying relief supplies into Sudan and then trucking them across the Ethiopian border at night into Eritrea and Tigray to avoid the Ethiopian army because of the civil war, discovered that Amin was working on the documentary “African Calvary.” One of the film’s interviewees, Mother Teresa, recommended the title to Amin. AmeriCares brought the film to the attention of Vice President Bush, who visited an Eritrean refugee camp in Sudan. Bush used the film to help increase the U.S. commitment to the crisis. Though “African Calvary” is not available online, much of Amin’s footage can be seen in this archived BBC report.
Today, Diehl describes President Trump as displaying an “anti-foreign aid posture,” demonstrated in part by his intention to slash billions of dollars in UN funding. During the 1983–1985 Ethiopian famine, 50 companies controlled 90 percent of US media; today, just five companies control 90 percent, and this humanitarian crisis is not in their news cycle. Bono and Geldof might be the first to say that Live 8 played their concept out and something new is needed to rock the world. In 1998, 12 years before the Giving Pledge, when a billion dollars was a lot of money, Ted Turner pledged that amount to establish the United Nations Foundation as his way to inspire others to give (he made his final gift to the foundation in 2014). Mr. Turner said it was “a spur of the moment” idea. He said of the UN’s ideals, “I always liked the idea—one for all, all for one.”
Diehl is right to be shocked by the lack of attention given to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria, but he is probably wrong to think history will repeat itself. The 20 million people whose lives are at risk will more likely need to be helped by new calls-to-action. The owner of Diehl’s Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, just a few days ago asked the world to tell him via Twitter what causes are most worthy of some of his $80 billion. Instead of promoting their own worthy causes, how many nonprofits suggested that he instead consider giving some of his wealth to help mitigate the greatest humanitarian crisis in our lifetime? Would it not rock the world if the Glide Foundation asked Warren Buffett to give the $2.68 million recently raised via eBay’s annual charity lunch auction to the UN Foundation instead this year?
Today’s nonprofit world is very different from that in 1985. Can we rise above the roiling debate about overhead, the ever-increasing number of nonprofits, donor retention, the consolidation of wealth, and all the rest of it for the sake of this crisis?—James Schaffer