Debt At Home, Famine Abroad: America's Aid Dilemma Despite media reports that food aid for Somalians is being stolen, a bipartisan congressional committee is calling for more U.S. dollars to be sent to the African country. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with members of the House Subcommittee on African and Global Health: Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.).
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Debt At Home, Famine Abroad: America's Aid Dilemma

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Debt At Home, Famine Abroad: America's Aid Dilemma

Debt At Home, Famine Abroad: America's Aid Dilemma

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TONY COX, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin.

In a moment, battling hey baby. We'll find out why some women are fed up with cat calling and what they hope to do about it. That's coming up in a moment.

First, though, we turn our attention to the Horn of Africa, where vast areas of Somalia and other nations are crippled by a devastating famine in the midst of the worst drought in six decades. More than 12 million people in East Africa are threatened with starvation, according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. As the crisis worsens, the demand for U.S. and international aid increases.

A bipartisan congressional committee is pleading for an increase in American aid, even as reports surface that aid for famine victims is being stolen and sold in some parts of Somalia.

Joining us to talk about American aid to Somalia are Republican Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey. He is the chairman of the House African and Global Health Subcommittee. He joins us here in our studios. Also with us is Democratic Representative Donald Payne. He serves the 10th District of New Jersey and he is the ranking member of the Africa and Global Health Subcommittee. He's on the line with us from Calgary, Canada. Gentlemen, welcome to the program, both of you.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SMITH: Tony, thank you so much for having us.

COX: Let me mention this as we begin. We've already indicated that there are reports that food is being stolen before it can get to famine victims. Here's a clip from the Associated Press about that situation.


ASSOCIATED PRESS: The bags are labeled WFP, USAID, gifts from the people of Japan, gifts from the people of Kuwait that are being sold. Huge trucks, five-ton trucks, are pulling up in convoys of three or four trucks and unloading them openly in the market.

COX: Chairman Smith, I'm going to come to you first.

SMITH: Sure.

COX: How much does this situation complicate, A, efforts to approve money for aid, and B, to ensure that the aid is delivered to the people for whom it's intended?

SMITH: Well, the World Food Program, which is on the ground and delivering this vital food to 12.4 million people who are at risk has made it very clear that they are investigating. They also point out that it is a small percentage of the amount of food aid.

And if we backed off when so many men, women and children - especially children and women - are facing, as you said, the worst crisis in six decades, that means that the thieves and al-Shabaab, which has unfortunately exacerbated the problem beyond anyone's belief, it means that they win and more people die.

We have to increase, as the president has just done, the amount of money. The United States is now feeding some 4.6 million people who are at risk or suffering from this famine in the countries in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia. So the diversion, while it may be a small, but it's a big headline, unfortunately. Yes, investigate, but in no way diminish our efforts to feed these hungry and at risk people.

COX: Congressman Payne, put in perspective for us, if you will, the monies that we are talking about and the effect that they are having. Is it a drop in the bucket? Is it significant? How should we look at these dollars?

Representative DONALD PAYNE: Well, any dollar spent is significant. The question is, are we being able to provide enough dollars to save all of the people? And the question(sic), of course, is no.

I think, as Congressman Smith mentioned, we have recently increased our 105 million of emergency funding and another 12 million on top of that just recently, bringing about close to $600 million that we've spent for U.S. humanitarian assistance in the region this year, but it is not enough.

The good news is that other countries have also participated. I mean, countries like Belgium and Germany and Tanzania and Turkey and many of the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and Kuwait and Qatar and UAE. So, there are other - this is an issue that we have seen other countries participate. But we are, the United States of America, by far the largest contributor. And I think that, as much as we can afford to contribute, we should.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

We are talking about American efforts to aid famine victims in East Africa. Our guests are Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, ranking member of the Africa and Global Health Subcommittee. Also with us, Republican Representative Christopher Smith, the chairman of that committee.

Let me ask you both. At a time when we hear a great deal about bickering on Capitol Hill, it seems your committee, perhaps, is an example of bipartisanship that really does work and it comes as one person who represents an umbrella group of USAID organizations.

His name is Sam Worthington. He's the president of InterAction. Says that there is a disconnect in Congress at the moment with regard to foreign aid, particularly given our economic situation here at home. Question, how are you able, Chairman Smith, to get this done in that climate?

SMITH: Well, I think it's important to lead, but lead with information. We just had a very devastating hearing in early July on Somalia and the crisis in the Horn of Africa. It's part of an ongoing effort to bring attention, light and scrutiny with possible answers to this emerging crisis.

One of the ideas that I have recommended the administration undertake is humanitarian corridors, which have worked extraordinarily well in the past. Days of tranquility when warring factions just lay down their arms and allow people to be fed. Medicines and other vital material to get to people so that they don't die. That effort needs to be initiated.

Thankfully, Mogadishu seems to be in a position where the al-Shabaab, the terrorist organization. Between 90, 95 percent of those terrorists groups have left. We don't know how far they've left. They may still be in proximity. But that has allowed huge amounts of food stuffs to make its way into the capital and this is only within the last week or so.

So there are some positive developments. But, unfortunately, this crisis has not even peaked yet. The U.N. has made an appeal for $2.4 billion. It has only received $1.1 billion, so we're $1.3 billion short to meet this huge crisis. We need bipartisanship now more than ever. Don and I work together across the aisle and we try to raise the level of scrutiny, like I said, but also response.

COX: This raises the question. This will be my last one. I'll direct it to you, Congressman Payne. To many Americans, there seems to be a cycle of crisis in Somalia that never ends, despite food aid and financial assistance and this latest round of assistance that's just been approved. What do you think can be done to improve the odds that, this time, aid will make a more lasting difference?

PAYNE: I think we have to continue to work with the transitional federal government. I went to Mogadishu two years ago. I was the first American official to go into Mogadishu since we left in the mid-'90s. And I saw that there's tremendous potential. The Somali people are very resilient and I had great meetings all day.

Of course, on my way out, al-Shabaab fired a missile at our plane, but fortunately, it missed. I also visited the Dadaab camp about a year ago and that camp - it was built for 90,000 people. They have over 420,000 people there today.

I think that the mistake of the past was that we left Somalia. We just said after the Black Hawk down and we lost our 18 rangers that we were leaving and we sort of neglected it. I think that was a mistake through Democratic and Republican administrations.

Now, we see piracy. We see famine. We see al-Shabaab being supported by al-Qaida. I hope that we really reengage with Sheikh Sharif and his transitional federal government and really stay there for the long haul because I do believe that we can turn Somalia around. That will turn the whole Horn of Africa around.

And then, once we have a government there, I think that we can end on the ground the piracy that's on the seas. You can't prevent it. You can't deal with - the seas are too wide. You can prevent it, though, with a government on the ground and that's what my goals are in working with Chairman Smith.

COX: Thank you very much, also, for coming on with us today. Democratic Representative Donald Payne of New Jersey, a ranking member of the subcommittee and he was on the phone with us from Calgary, Canada. Also joining us, Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, joining us here in our studios today. Gentlemen, both, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you very much, Tony.

PAYNE: Thank you.

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