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The effort to cut the federal budget here in the U.S. is forcing deep cuts in overseas aid. And humanitarian groups are worried about what that will mean for countries stricken by disaster. They argue that lives are at stake here in places like the Horn of Africa, a region suffering its worst drought in decades. But raising both public and private money for the relief effort has been a challenge, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hollywood stars and politicians have resorted to using the F-word, in this case famine, to get the attention of Americans about the humanitarian emergency in Somalia.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BONO: Famine is the real obscenity.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Famine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Famine.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Famine.

GEORGE CLOONEY: Thirty thousand children have died in just three months.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Thirty thousand.

KELEMEN: Bono, George Clooney and many others are featured in this video campaign to explain that there are solutions if people and governments are willing to give. So far, aid groups have raised just over $60 million from private giving in the U.S., according to Sam Worthington, who runs InterAction, an alliance of 190 non-governmental aid groups.

SAM WORTHINGTON: This is sharply lower than the $1.29 billion that our members, InterAction members, raised for Haiti.

KELEMEN: Worthington says Americans tend to be generous after dramatic events like earthquakes and tsunamis, but it's harder to generate that kind of response to hunger in a complicated region of Africa. Perhaps, he says, people just don't think there's a solution.

WORTHINGTON: And the reality is, we do know how to save lives during famines. We do know how to help farmers plant seeds. And we do know that we could really make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months. The reality is, is we do not have the resources to be able to do what we should be able to do.

KELEMEN: It's not just the slow pace of private giving in these tough economic times that have aid groups worried. Tom Hart of the advocacy group known as the One Campaign says the way it looks now, budget cuts will hit foreign aid programs disproportionately, even though they amount to less than one percent of the federal budget. And that could undercut things that the U.S. has been able to accomplish in recent years, such as promoting food security.

TOM HART: In fact, Ethiopia and Kenya have experienced the same double drought that Somalia did. And because of good investments in agricultural and pre-positioning food, Ethiopia and Kenya aren't yet experiencing the obviously severe life-threatening famine that Somalia is.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration's signature aid program called Feed the Future has already been scaled back by budget cuts. A top House appropriations committee member, Texas Republican Kay Granger, says in the past the U.S. has been able to take the long view, knowing that someday what we plant would bear fruit. But as her panel unveiled its spending proposals over the summer, she said, quote, "Today is a different time and every dollar counts."

So Robert Zachritz with World Vision has taken a new approach to his lobbying on Capitol Hill.

ROBERT ZACHRITZ: We have been emphasizing, you know what, the budget deficit is a moral issue. You know, that's about $55,000 per American. That's a real moral issue. You can't live beyond your means. But then we also raise, it's a moral issue of saving a child's life or responding to a famine.

KELEMEN: While advocates of foreign aid find themselves fighting to preserve existing programs, others say it is possible to do more with less, and Congress could help by streamlining some of the rules governing U.S. aid.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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