Ethiopia + 1 more

An Interview with Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) on his recent trip to famine-stricken Ethiopia and Eritrea

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Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) has been involved in trying to solve problems of hunger in Africa since his first visit to Ethiopia at the outset of the famine there in 1984. He has just returned from an assessment mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea, where drought has caused crop failures once again that threaten an estimated 14 million people with starvation. Congressman Wolf returned from his trip passionately committed to raising awareness of the crisis and provoking action by the U.S. government and other donor nations to mitigate the effects of the drought in the Horn.
In a meeting with representatives of non-governmental organizations, including RI, convened in his office, Congressman Wolf showed us a searing video from his trip and pleaded with us to join him in raising awareness of the looming famine, an effort especially necessary given the focus of the American people on a potential conflict in Iraq. RI offered the Congressman the opportunity to be interviewed for publication on our website. He readily agreed and kindly responded to the following questions submitted by email:

RI: Congressman, what struck you most forcefully on your recent visit to assess the famine situation in Ethiopia and Eritrea?

Congressman Wolf: The extent to which the crisis has already reached. The situation, particularly in Ethiopia, is extremely dire and getting worse by the day. More than 11 million Ethiopians are already at risk and another 3 million are on a so called "watch list." Eritrea is about a month behind, but the situation there could quickly spiral out of control. Many of the children I saw in Ethiopia will be dead by Easter. I saw 2- and 3-year-old children who are so severely malnourished that they cannot stand, much less walk. The legs of one teenaged girl we saw were no thicker than my wrists. Many of the children had bloated stomachs and skin lesions. Disease and dysentery were commonplace.

RI: What is your assessment of the response to this situation by the United States, European donor countries, and the governments of the affected countries?

Congressman Wolf: Since August 2002, the United States has provided approximately 430,000 metric tons of food, valued at $179 million. This amount constitutes approximately 25 percent of the total need in the country. Obviously, much more food is needed, and a number of countries, such as France and Canada, can and should do more. Donor support also must include water, seeds and medicine as well as veterinary assistance. The Ethiopian government deserves credit for not trying to hide the problem - like in 1984 when Mengistu tried to keep the famine a secret - and has been working around the clock to address the crisis. Nevertheless, it can and should take action to prevent famines of this magnitude from taking place in the future. Right now, however, all attention must be focused on feeding the starving people.

RI: What needs to happen now to save lives?

Congressman Wolf: First and foremost, everything possible must be done to secure food aid pledges from the United States and other countries so that there is no break in the food pipeline. There is enough food to get through mid-February, but after that there is nothing. Zero for March. Zero for April. Zero for May. Nothing for the rest of the year. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget must work to ensure that our assistance is released as soon as possible and our allies must also act immediately. The private sector and faith-based groups also need to get engaged. In 1984, several benefit concerts and other types of fundraisers were held around the globe, raising more than $250 million for the cause.

RI: The average American may wonder why famine keeps returning to this part of Africa. Isn't emergency food aid just a band-aid on a much larger problem?

Congressman Wolf: No one doubts that Ethiopia and Eritrea will face droughts throughout eternity. During modern times, severe droughts have wreaked havoc on the Horn of Africa about every 10 years. The question is what can these two countries do to lessen the impact. Clearly, more must be done to develop long-term strategies to tackle the root causes of the food shortages in Ethiopia, like improving irrigation and developing drought-resistant crops. The government must develop a 10- or 15-year plan designed to help end the constant cycle of massive food shortages. A well-developed plan would go a long way toward reassuring the international community that the country wants to end its dependence on handouts. The Ethiopian government also should do more to help diversify its economy. Its largest export - coffee - is subject to huge price fluctuations in the world market and rather than exporting hides and leather to Italy and China - only to come back as belts, purses and shoes - the government should work to attract business that will make these products on Ethiopian soil. The government of Ethiopia also should consider a sweeping land reform policy that would allow farmers to own their property rather than the government owning all the country's land, a vestige of the country's socialist days. Many of these same issues apply to Eritrea.

RI: Finally, Congressman, how does someone from a suburban Virginia district become so passionately involved in responding to hunger in Africa? What is your motivation to focus on this issue when so many daunting problems face the United States and the world at this moment?

Congressman Wolf: I am motivated by my faith. In Luke 12 it says "for unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask more." Here in America, we blessed with so much. Freedom. Opportunity. And, yes, wealth. As Americans, we must share the blessings we have with the world.