Why It's So Hard To Stop The World's Looming Famines : Goats and Soda Millions of people in Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa are facing food shortages and severe malnutrition. Host Audie Cornish talks with Justin Forsyth of UNICEF about the crisis.
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Why It's So Hard To Stop The World's Looming Famines

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Why It's So Hard To Stop The World's Looming Famines

Why It's So Hard To Stop The World's Looming Famines

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest is deputy executive director of UNICEF. Justin Forsyth came to Washington to tell senators about the famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northern Nigeria. He stopped by our studios, too.

JUSTIN FORSYTH: Well, in these four countries, we've got a combination of drought but conflict, too, which has really tipped some of these countries or regions within these countries over the edge. One-point-four million children face death in these countries because they're severely malnourished, which means that a small thing - you know, an infection, diarrhea - would tip them over the edge and allow them to die. So we're racing against time to help save these children in this very difficult situation.

CORNISH: A situation where violent conflict often interferes with humanitarian efforts. He described a visit he made to a remote part of South Sudan called Bentiu.

FORSYTH: I went to a UNICEF-supported health clinic, and it had been completely looted. And there were children lying on the floor with almost no support because all the medical facilities, even the beds, had been taken away from the health clinic but also the medicines and the treatment we needed to provide.

CORNISH: You know, you describing these children kind of left behind - right? - in the aftermath of violence or these situations - it makes me wonder what happens to a child - right? - who has suffered from starvation for a prolonged period of time. Like, what are the effects there?

FORSYTH: Well, they're devastating. Even if the child doesn't die, they're devastating. I was actually - the last time there was famine in Somalia or in Kenya in 2011, I met a little girl called Umi (ph). And she was literally - I mean you could hold her in your two hands she was so small. She was only 3 months old. She looked like she had already given up hope. Her eyes were rolling back in her head. And I saw how expert Kenyan A teams pulled her literally back from the brink of death.

And I got so attached to her. I asked for reports afterwards over the subsequent few years. And I was sitting at home one day actually with my new 3-month-old, and I was told that she had died. And the reason that she died was she had this condition called stunting which physically and mentally affects you because she had been so severely affected by that lack of food in those first few months in life. And so it made her very vulnerable for the rest of her life, only a few more years, to diarrhea and pneumonia.

CORNISH: So what happens when your teams are trying to address this? I mean how do you prioritize? What do you actually do?

FORSYTH: Well, in the very, very difficult situations, we're basically just trying to keep people alive. So in South Sudan at the moment or in Yemen, we're doing search teams out into remote areas where there's fighting. And we're doing emergency work. We're providing things like Plumpy'nut, which is this emergency food we give to children. It's very high in nutrients. We're doing oral rehydration, which is what stops children with diarrhea dehydrating completely. It's really life-saving work to pull children back from the brink.

CORNISH: Now, the U.S. Congress has inserted some extra money in its budget specifically for these struggling countries, these four countries. But we also know that the U.N. is reporting not having enough. Do we know what's going on or how much is still needed?

FORSYTH: Yeah, we do. I mean the U.S. has been very generous. Both the American people have also been very generous, but the American government and with the support of Congress puts the U.S. at the top of the league of providing assistance in these famine situations.

CORNISH: I was reading upwards of 1.9 billion since November.

FORSYTH: Enormous amounts. And overall we need around 6 billion, and we have about 40 to 45 percent of those resources. So we're short. The U.S. is doing its bit. Other countries need to more step up to the mark.

CORNISH: People have been talking about this as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, right? We're talking about upwards of 20 million total across these four countries who are affected by food insecurity. But we haven't been hearing that much about it. And why do you think that is?

FORSYTH: I think because there's a lot going on in the world. And it is a devastating crisis.

CORNISH: But I grew up in the '80s where famine - right? - particularly...

FORSYTH: Yeah, Bob Geldof and all of...

CORNISH: ...In some African nation, it was like a kind of a cause that many people embraced. And somehow maybe it's wars that are going on there or the other issues that are tangled up. It doesn't seem to capture that the same way.

FORSYTH: I mean I think there are two things going on. One is that politicians in the world are very focused on politics at home, not on international issues. But I think in addition to that, I think people have probably believed this problem hasn't really gone away and it's still with us. But they also need to hear the other side of the story - is that when we've made investments in the past, we've actually made unbelievable progress.

We've reduced the number of children dying from malaria and pneumonia and diarrhea by half in only a few years because of aid and because of these investments. So don't despair. You can make a difference. When you do give money or you ask your government to step up to the mark, it does really save children's lives. And the overall situation isn't bleak. It's actually quite hopeful and encouraging.

CORNISH: Justin Forsyth is deputy executive director at the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF. Thank you for coming in to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

FORSYTH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SONG, "INSIDE OUT")

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