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  • Digital Press Briefing with USAID Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs Sarah Charles and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau Elizabeth Campbell.

Listen or download the audio file here.

Moderator:  Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants from across the continent and thank all of you for taking part in this discussion.  Today, we are very pleased to be joined by USAID Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Elizabeth Campbell.  They are speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Assistant Administrator Charles, then we will turn to your questions.  We will try to get to as many of them as we can during that we have.

If you would like to join the conversation on Twitter, please use the #AFHubPress and follow us on Twitter @AfricaMediaHub.

As a reminder, today’s briefing is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to USAID Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles for her opening remarks.

Ms. Charles:  Thank you.  Good afternoon, good morning, everyone.  I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you today about the devastating drought in the Horn of Africa and USAID’s emergency humanitarian response.  

The level of need is staggering.  More than 20 million people across the Horn will need emergency food assistance to meet their most basic needs in 2022.  This is more than a 70 percent increase compared to the region’s last severe drought in 2016 and 2017.  Drought is not unusual in East Africa, but a drought this severe is.  The frequency and severity of droughts in the region and the scale of humanitarian needs are increasing, exposing the devastating trend of climate change that disproportionately affects the world’s poorest communities.  Already, 1.5 million livestock have died.  Crops are nearly nonexistent in affected areas.  In some areas, including Kenya and southern and southeastern Ethiopia, conflict has broken out over scarce resources.  An alarming number of children are acutely malnourished, and we’re also seeing devastating reports from Somalia of young girls being forced to marry in exchange for food and water.  

The United States is stepping up to respond.  Today in Geneva, the U.S. is announcing more than 200 million in additional humanitarian assistance from USAID and the State Department to respond to the drought in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.  This brings total support for the region to more than 360 million in this fiscal year alone.  Across the region, we’re providing critical emergency food and nutrition assistance, safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene supplies, and medical care.  

This assistance, coupled with unhindered humanitarian access to conflict-affected areas and greater donor investment in a crisis, is urgently needed to save lives and livelihoods.  Evidence shows that early humanitarian intervention is critical to both save lives and protect livelihoods.  In addition, early investments have been shown to significantly reduce the need for humanitarian assistance to meet most basic needs in the long term.  Where possible, resilience and development investments across the region should pivot to support immediate needs, asset protection, early recovery, and system strengthening to protect resilience and development gains.  

In addition to assistance, several of USAID’s development programs are already working to mitigate the impacts of the drought.  For instance, the Feed the Future Resilience in Pastoral Areas activity in Ethiopia is protecting livelihood assets of drought-affected pastoralists through commercial destocking and emergency water provision for breed stock.  However, the impacts of these types of efforts are being eclipsed due to the scale and severity of the crisis.  Much more is needed, especially as the Russian Federation’s war in Ukraine only threatens to further compound the drastic needs as food prices rise and the region can no longer import critical wheat from Russia and Ukraine.  

The scale of the needs of this crisis are far beyond what traditional humanitarian donors can support.  We call on all donors – governments, foundations, and the private sector – to help fill critical gaps in the emergency response and help save lives; contributions to NGOs, UN agencies, and governments working in the region to help ensure contributions are coordinated and have the most impact.  

Look forward to taking your questions.  

Moderator:  Thank you, Assistant Administrator Charles.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  We ask that you limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing:  U.S. leadership in the global humanitarian response to droughts in the Horn of Africa.  

Our first question will go to a question sent in to us from Linda Givetash of Voice of America out of South Africa.  Her question is:  “How is the drought impacting conflict areas of Ethiopia, especially Tigray?”  

Ms. Charles:  Hi, Marissa, this is Sarah.  I can take that question.  While Tigray certainly has acute food insecurity, the drought is not significantly impacting Tigray and other parts of northern Ethiopia.  It really is concentrated in southern and southeastern pastoral parts of Ethiopia.  The impacts of the drought in those areas are already visible, with reports of diminishing pasture and water, excess livestock deaths becoming more prevalent, and significantly affecting the livelihoods of pastoralists and agro-pastoralist populations.  At least 8 million people across southern and southeastern Ethiopia have been affected with the drought, which is not to say, again, that there aren’t significant food security needs in north – in northern Ethiopia.  In Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, nearly a million people are facing near famine-level conditions driven not so much by the drought but by conflict and blocking of humanitarian access to those areas.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Our next question is:  How will the assistance be administered – through host governments, implementing partners?  How will USAID ensure that funds are distributed and assistance is distributed equitably and fairly?

Ms. Charles:  Hi, Marissa, this is Sarah.  I can take that question again.  Our assistance goes primarily through UN, nongovernmental organization, including local nongovernmental organizations, although it’s closely coordinated with governments in the region.  We’ve seen in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia governments really stepping up early in this response to identify needs and help coordinate the response.  Our assistance is really meant to complement those efforts implemented primarily, again, through UN and nongovernmental organizations.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next question goes to Ibrahima N’diaye out of the Mali Tribune.  His question is:  “Apart from humanitarian aid, is there another possibility to support rural families in the face of this lack of water and pasture?”  

Ms. Charles:  This is very much an all-hands-on-deck moment.  We are here in Washington, where this week we’re coming through the final days of the World Bank spring meetings.  I know there’s been a lot of discussion and effort again between impacted governments and multilateral development banks about financing to support increased assistance in response to this really historic level of drought and food insecurity in the Horn.  I also call on other donors to really step up to provide additional assistance in these impacted areas, as well as the private sector.  There’s really a role for local resource mobilization for the private sector both in these impacted communities and countries, but also multinational corporations in addition, of course, to other donor government support.  We really call on fellow donors to step up.  As I said, early intervention really pays big dividends when you’re talking about drought response in terms of protecting both lives and livelihoods and reducing the impact and need for humanitarian assistance later.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  We’ll move to Deputy Assistant Secretary Campbell to talk to us a little bit about the refugee crisis that this sort of – this sort of crisis causes.  Can you share a little bit of that with us?  

Ms. Campbell:  Sure, thank you very much.  Very pleased to be here.  In fact, refugees, conflict victims, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers can be particularly impacted by the severe drought that my colleague just described.  They’re especially vulnerable; they can be forced to move because of lack of access to water and basic necessities.  We here in the Department of State are providing robust funding to these populations.  We consider it a central priority and we’re going to continue to do our part to make sure that they’re not left out of the humanitarian aid that we are providing.  

As Sarah noted, today we were proud to announce around $200 million in additional aid, bringing the total to over 360 million.  For us, we’re making sure that refugees, IDPs, and other conflict victims are a central part of that calculation.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  The next question is:  Does USAID cooperate with other organizations when coordinating assistance, and how does this work?  Assistant Administrator Charles, you mentioned a bit about using the UN for assistance.  And this question is also for DAS Campbell to discuss how the U.S. works in coordination with other governments, institutions, on the issues of refugees.  

Ms. Charles:  I can start and then turn it over to DAS Campbell.  I think our response to the drought is a really good example of how we work closely with host governments, with UN donors, with NGO partners on a coordinated, targeted, and strategic approach.  In the example of Kenya, we saw early on the Government of Kenya identify concerns about a fourth consecutive season of lower-than-average rains; raise the alarm early that there could be significant drought and significant food insecurity impacts; work with UN partners, local governments, and NGOs and donors to identify a plan and prioritize assistance.  And again, our support is in support of those efforts.  

Ms. Campbell:  Sure, I can add we work in a very similar way.  For example, in Kenya our primary partner is the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.  We also support international and national NGOs there providing assistance to refugees and other conflict-affected populations.  Other UN organizations such as UNICEF are also key partners for us.  And likewise, we coordinate our work very closely with the government there and the governments throughout the region to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are targeted and that our international assistance reaches them.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  We have a question in the chat from Kemi Osukoya of the Africa Bazaar.  His question is:  “I was wondering if you could tell us some of the partners that you’re working with.  Also, are you collaborating with the African Development Bank on your efforts to address this drought?”  

Ms. Charles:  Yes, as I mentioned before, we’re working with a number of UN partners as well as nongovernmental partners.  Examples of those UN partners are the World Food Program, UNICEF, the UN’s Children Fund, FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, again, for multisectoral response focused not just on food assistance but critical nutrition, health, water, and sanitation as well as early recovery activities around support to pastoralist communities for restocking herds when the time comes.  And again, that work is closely, closely coordinated and done in partnership with a number of nongovernmental organization partners that we support.  

We also work closely – USAID works closely with the African Development Bank and has been in active conversations with them, again, not just about their response to the immediate needs related to the drought, but also their response to the long-term food security impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine and how we anticipate that could impact prices and local markets across the Horn in the coming months and years.  

Moderator:  A question for you – oh, DAS Campbell, would you like to add to that?  

Ms. Campbell:  I just wanted to add that another key partner for the U.S. Government is the International Organization for Migration that is also on the front lines of providing assistance in this drought.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Next we have a question in the chat, and this will be for you, DAS Campbell, from Babaloki Semele with the African Daily Press in Botswana.  His question is:  “Kindly let me know how often you engage pressure groups such as rights activists and youth in your response initiatives, and what are the challenges that you often come across in your response initiatives?  Have you ever been in cases where governments blocked your support or not?”  We could probably see this playing out a lot more when there are issues of refugees and migration, so over to you, DAS Campbell.  

Ms. Campbell:  Thank you for that question.  The U.S. Government very much values its engagement with a wide range of civil society groups, and we see it as a central part of our mission to speak with these groups through facilitating roundtables and other types of communication so that we can hear from them directly on how they see these conflicts unfolding in their communities and the ways that we can partner with them best.  So we do that in Washington, we do that also with stakeholders in the region on a regular basis, and I think the issue that I would underscore is that U.S. humanitarian assistance is provided on the basis of need.  It is independent, and we work to make sure that assistance reaches those civilians who are most impacted.  That is the goal in all areas where we operate, including throughout the Horn and the rest of the continent.  Those are sort of the values and principles that we use to make sure that aid is not politicized, and when we find that it’s blocked or that civilians – we can’t access civilians and they can’t access our aid, then we work very closely to ensure that there’s greater access so that it can flow to those who are most in need.  

Moderator:  Thank you.  Many people say, specifically on the continent, that if others have to bring in assistance, it means that their governments are not doing what they’re supposed to do.  How would you address that concern from citizens on the continent?  

Ms. Campbell:  Well, I think that the refugees in particular, especially when there’s large influxes, it does overwhelm government capacity and systems – not just in the Horn but in many other parts of the world as well.  So the UN-led international system, which the United States strongly supports, is in place to help when that does occur, and we see our engagement as supporting and ensuring that basic services, basic assistance is made available.  So yes, sometimes governments are not able to directly meet those needs, but that is something that we see throughout the world; it’s not unique to the Horn.  And so, again, we provide that assistance on the principle of need and need alone in ensuring that that assistance reaches those civilians who are most impacted.  

Ms. Charles:  And I would add to that, this really is a historic drought, a 40-year drought.  There have been a lot of investments by governments in the region in partnership with donors in resilience, in climate-smart agriculture, in activities that help make communities more resilient to droughts, but sometimes those investments, those activities are really overwhelmed by what is, again, an historic event – a 40-year drought driven by changes in climate, impacts on the ground.  And we’re seeing, again, a significant increase in need as a result to that, and the donor community, the U.S. Government, is here to support local initiatives in order to respond to, again, what is an historic drought event. 

Moderator:  Okay.  Just to stay on the point about the historic aspect of the drought, it seems that a lot of whether it’s donors or even people living on the continent or those in other parts of the world almost have lost that sensitivity or may even have compassion fatigue.  And so what can journalists do to ensure that the donor community and others really understand the severity of the drought and what is needed?

Ms. Charles:  Well, first of all I’d thank all of you for being on the call today, and I think the most important thing you can do is really tell the story of what’s happening, again, in northern Kenya, in Somalia, in south and southeastern Ethiopia.  Unfortunately, the impacts of this drought are already visible.  This is the third below-average consecutive rain season.  We have 20 million people expected to need emergency food assistance as a result of this drought.  We’re already seeing death of livestock, excess mortality, forced marriage, in some cases conflict.

But a lot of these areas where the drought is unfolding are actually accessible, so again, I would encourage journalists really to tell the story in order to ensure that this has – this crisis has the profile that it deserves given, again, the severity of need right now, and I would say the potential for an effective response.  We know how to respond to the type of drought that we’re seeing now, the food insecurity, with targeted nutrition, health, water, and sanitation assistance.  We know that we can save lives, but more resources are needed.

Moderator:  The next question – we’re just going to go with a little bit about what you said – some of the devastating effects of this drought or even the domino effects of this drought.  And everything stands out, but one in particular is child marriage that you spoke about.  Can you talk about why this is happening?  Obviously, for folks to get food, but how this could affect especially those young girls in the future.  Either DAS Campbell or Assistant Administrator Charles?

Ms. Campbell:  Well, I can start by saying that we often see this as a coping mechanism for families who are facing extreme duress and have few options.  And it is something that of course we see as important to respond to and to address.  And we have various ways that we work with our partners, as described, to sort of highlight what we would call a protection concern, a concern facing vulnerable children, and ways to try to engage with these families, to think through different ways that we can meet sort of the economic and other familial distress that they’re facing to provide the kind of support that they need so those choices are not ones that ever have to be on the table. 

Moderator:  Assistant Administrator Charles, anything to add to that? 

Ms. Charles:  I think DAS Campbell said it well.  I mean, I think the thing to understand is no family resorts to early marriage unless they’re really quite desperate and in desperate circumstances.  And again, we have the tools to respond to what we’re seeing right now.  We know how to support families, both with immediate assistance in order to meet their basic needs, but also to provide protection and support, as DAS Campbell mentioned, in order to help families think through and cope with the circumstances that they’re facing and make choices, again, with the benefit of extra support.  But we need additional resources. 

Moderator:  All right.  And finally, we just want to move on to – oh, we’ve got a question in the chat from Milton Maluleque of Deutsche Welle in Africa.  “How is humanitarian assistance provided in the Horn of Africa?”  Okay.  Especially in conflict areas such as Somalia and Tigray, I think you all touched on this a bit.  Perhaps you could elaborate on this for our journalist out of Deutsche Welle.

Ms. Campbell:  So I would – first of all, again, thank you for that question.  In Tigray in particular and northern Ethiopia, we work through UN and NGO partners.  We are facing in Tigray really almost unprecedented challenges with access, both obstruction in terms of bureaucratic obstruction, conflict, violence, difficulty reaching those who are most in need with assistance.  We’ve seen over the last two weeks small convoys of assistance, the latest one actually yesterday, reach Mekele for the first time in several months in the last couple of weeks.  

We have had assistance reach Mekele in the kind of dozens of trucks; we need a hundred trucks a day to meet the kinds of needs that we’re seeing in Tigray, which requires sustained commitment from the parties to the conflict, from the government and from the TPLF, in order to provide the access that humanitarian partners need and ensure that assistance gets to those that need it most. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  As we sort of get to the top of the hour and finish up, I just want to ask about security.  Obviously, it’s very difficult to not just coordinate but to distribute assistance without security.  How will USAID work with security professionals to be able to provide the assistance that’s needed?  And is this the role of the recipients, of the host country, or is this the role of USAID to provide this kind of support to ensure that assistance is delivered? 

Ms. Charles:  So we work very closely with experienced partners.  We support them with security advice and guidance, but we really rely on them.  Most of the staff of our partners are from the communities where they’re working.  They work with us to develop security plans and approaches.  We support them in those efforts, but those efforts are really led by our partners themselves based on their on-the-ground experience in those communities.  They work very hard to build relationships with local leaders, local communities, in order to negotiate the kind of access that is afforded by international humanitarian law for all humanitarian partners.  Again, we’re supporting partners to deliver assistance to those who need it most, wherever they might be, and we support them in their efforts to ensure security. 

Moderator:  Thank you.  So we’ll have a final question go live to Mr. Babaloki Semele of the African Daily Press out of Botswana.  Mr. Semele, you may ask your question. 

Question:  Okay.  Thank you so much.  I actually wanted to ask the question in relation to the one that you have asked.  It’s in regard to how – like, in most cases we’ve heard of instances where humanitarian support has been interrupted in some countries.  So in avoidance of such, how is USAID doing in terms of compliance with the laws and rules and regulations of the receiving state?  Thank you.

Moderator:  Yes.  Go ahead.

Ms. Charles:  This is Sarah Charles again from USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance.  Of course, we first and foremost want to work closely with local actors in support of our partners in order to secure the type of access that they need to deliver assistance safely.  But as Babaloki pointed out, there are of course instances where our partners are working in very insecure and violent environments, sometimes where the government may not want them to be working.  In those cases, again, we engage diplomatically in order to help negotiate for humanitarian access.  We support our partners, again, in their own security planning and really, again, support them to reach assistance where it’s needed most to get to the most vulnerable.

Moderator:  Thank you.  Well, that is all the time that we have for today.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Campbell, do you have any final words?  

Ms. Campbell:  Thank you very much.  The only thing I wanted to add is to say that responding to the drought and to the ongoing conflicts in parts of the Horn is a top priority of the U.S. Government and we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that we can alleviate as much suffering as possible.  Thank you for the opportunity today.  

Moderator:  That concludes today’s briefing.  I would like to thank USAID Assistant Administrator Sarah Charles and Deputy Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Campbell for speaking to us today, and thank all of our journalists for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s briefing, you may contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at  Thank you.  

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