Ending Famine and Protecting Critical Programs: Tony Hall Remarks to Congressional-Diplomatic Dialogue

April 28, 2017

On April 27, the Alliance to End Hunger’s Executive Director Emeritus, Amb. Tony Hall, addressed a Congressional-Diplomatic Dialogue – organized by the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.  Congressman and Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) chaired the panel, with Congresswoman and Ranking Member Karen Bass (D-CA) in attendance as well.  In addition to Amb. Hall, panelists included Beth Dunford, Assistant to the USAID Administrator and Deputy Coordinator for Development for Feed the Future; H.E. Wilson Mutagaywa Masilingi, Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania; and H.E. Daouda Diabate, Ambassador of the Republic of Cote D’Ivoire.

The following are the remarks delivered by Amb. Hall.

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From left to right: Amb. Tony Hall; Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ); Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA); Beth Dunford, Assistant to the USAID Administrator and Deputy Coordinator for Development for Feed the Future; H.E. Wilson Mutagaywa Masilingi, Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania; H.E. Daouda Diabate, Ambassador of the Republic of Cote D’Ivoire. (Photo: Nathan Magrath/Alliance to End Hunger)

Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Bass, Members of the Subcommittee, and friends and colleagues in the room today.  Thank you for inviting me to speak on an issue that I hold very close to my heart—that is the welfare of the world’s hungriest, most vulnerable people.  This comes at a time when I am not only disheartened by our lack of a strong reaction to famine, but also terrified that we would even consider cutting the lifeline to people literally starving to death.

Make no mistake, these famines we are talking about today are manmade, and it takes leaders to alleviate the suffering caused by them.  The current famine in South Sudan, and the impending famines in northern Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen are no exception.  When governments are either unwilling or unable to respond to such catastrophes, who is best suited to save these peoples’ lives? In my experience as a former member of Congress for 24 years, as an Ambassador to the UN food and agriculture agencies in Rome, and in my leadership role at the Alliance to End Hunger, I can tell you that the United States can and must respond to this horror.

I know I am speaking to a room of friends on this issue, but my own experiences are worth repeating.  During the Ethiopian famine in the 1980’s I traveled with a group of doctors to one of the camps set up to deal with the humanitarian emergency.  The impact this experience had on me was overwhelming.  It’s not only the sight of hungry, emaciated children like you see on TV commercials.  It’s also the sound of suffering, and a smell so intense you can almost taste it.  I saw over two dozen children die that day. It is an experience I will never, ever forget.

Then, over the course of my career I could see that we were learning from past mistakes.  Aid was becoming more efficient and effective, and a re-discovered focus on development—especially agricultural development—pointed towards a brighter future for the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom are smallholder farmers.  Here in the United States, the success of Feed the Future, and the passing of the Global Food Security Act showcased American leadership in fighting hunger and malnutrition around the globe.  Feed the Future is already improving the lives and livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers.  And in a world where 45% of child mortality is related to hunger, the initiative is reaching out to children with critical nutrition interventions.

And as a global community, we have been making unmistakable progress.  There are currently 795 million hungry people in the world.  While this is still far too many, it also represents a nearly 50 percent drop in the proportion of hungry people worldwide in the last 30 years.

But today, we are confronted with the harrowing fact that 20 million people in four countries are on the verge of starving to death. And this brings me to my message to you today.  In a world where as a whole we have made so much progress, but are also seeing dire emergency situations right now, why would we even dream of considering any cuts to food aid and development programs?  This is not only irresponsible, but also inhumane.  We know what the problem is, we know how to solve it, and it disheartens me that we would ignore what we have learned. This is beyond a moral failing.

And our responsibility lies not only with responding to current crises, but also building resilience to minimize future risk.  This means not only giving development agencies the resources they need to continue their critical work, but also pushing for stronger links between development and local civil society.  Sustainable, long-term development starts with buy-in at the local, household level—not only at the government level.  Development needs to be community-led, with a vibrant civil society working with governments to ensure success.

Once again, I recognize many people in this room as friends and allies on this issue.  However, we need to work harder to not only build political will, but also public will for these issues.  Despite our community’s constant exasperation with this fact, there are still far too many people who do not understand the relatively miniscule amount of funding our country directs towards non-military aid and development.  So my message today is not only directed toward Congress, but also toward all of us who have so far struggled to get our message across.

And so there are three points we all must come away with today:

  1. End the famine. Period, full-stop. This is the world’s responsibility as a whole, and it is certainly our responsibility as well.
  2. Protect funding for lifesaving initiatives and programs. This includes the critical work being conducted by USAID and others.  To cut funding for these programs is not only cutting dollars from the budget, but also lives.
  3. Beyond protecting these programs, we need to enhance their ability to work with the ultimate beneficiaries of development: the people themselves. This means working within communities, and with civil society, in order to make country-led development truly that, and not just government-led development.  What does this mean? It means supporting education, supporting microcredit, and supporting climate-smart agriculture.  But it also means more than this. It means ensuring these programs are owned by the people and communities that are being targeted. This will not only promote lives and livelihoods, but will build resilience to minimize the risk of famine.

It is my strong, sincere belief that we can end hunger worldwide in a generation.  While the task may sound daunting, it is not impossible.  I implore you to embrace this belief, and for everyone to do what they can to build the public and political will to feed the hungry, build resilience, and empower a global community of continuing development.

Thank you for your time.