Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
January 30, 2023
QUESTION: The countries in Africa’s far eastern tip are suffering, and not for the first time. Millions of people in the Horn of Africa face food shortages. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, just visited Mogadishu, Somalia, and she said the crisis could kill more people than a famine in 2011. And that is part of the story: there was an earlier famine a decade ago, and famines before that. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield remembers because she has served in various posts in Africa for years.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I was working on refugee issues in 1993, as the refugee coordinator for the Horn of Africa. So, I did a lot of checking through refugee camps around the region, but because I was in Kenya, Dadaab Refugee Camp was where I spent most of my time.
QUESTION: What do you remember from that refugee camp?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I remember the lack of joy in people’s eyes, because people were fleeing; mothers were holding babies who had not had enough food; they were describing incidents of rape. Many of them were kicked out by their families. But the most difficult thing I saw was watching a young girl who looked like a baby – I found out later she was two years old – die in front of my eyes.
QUESTION: You must think about that from time to time.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I do think about it from time to time, and whenever I’m in refugee camps or I meet refugees. So in Kenya, I happened to meet a group of refugees who had been approved for the U.S. resettlement program, and one was a family with a little seven-year-old girl who had bright, beautiful eyes, a beautiful smile, and I just knew that what was going to happen in her life was going to make a huge difference in her future. And I said to her that she was going to be the next Ilhan Omar, who had left Kenya as a refugee when she was eight years old – I discovered much later, at the same time that I was serving in Kenya as the refugee coordinator.
QUESTION: Wow. So there are possibilities there, and yet so many people suffering. You named a refugee camp that you remember from 30 years ago. I’m just looking it up; the Dadaab Refugee Camp still exists.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s still there. Yeah.
QUESTION: The UN gives it a population of more than 200,000 people, which is the size of a decent-sized city.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And many of them have been there for 30 years.
QUESTION: So what has made the problem of hunger, particularly in the Horn of Africa, so persistent?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The issue of hunger has been an issue for some time, but it was certainly made more dire by the war in Ukraine. It was made equally difficult by significant climatic changes. We heard when we were in Kenya that they’ve had five consecutive failed rainfalls, and what that means is that people cannot grow the food that they need to eat. And the sixth rainfall is scheduled to take place in the March-April timeframe, and the predictions are dire.
So combine that with the war in Ukraine and then conflict that’s taking place in Somalia and in the region, and you have a perfect storm of food insecurity.
QUESTION: But I’m thinking about the long-term nature of the problem in that part of the world. I mean, the western United States has drought right now linked to climate change, but obviously not famine. Ukraine itself has war, but not famine. Is there some structural economic problem in East Africa that causes setbacks of those kinds to lead to famine again and again and again?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, you’re dealing with conflict, so people cannot grow their products when they’re being forced from their homes. So imagine those 200,000 refugees in Dadaab came from somewhere in Somalia, where they left their homes and are unable to grow and support themselves and their livelihoods as they might normally have done.
So that’s the difference here. Ukraine was a net exporter of wheat. They still had wheat in ships and wheat in silos that were not being shipped overseas. That wheat also has affected the food insecurity that’s taking place in the Horn of Africa.
QUESTION: So you just have a more marginal economy less connected to the global economy with less room for error, fewer resources to draw on?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That’s exactly the case. People are already living subsistence lives. Anything that happens that might impact their ability to survive is almost a death notice.
QUESTION: You said, when in Mogadishu, “Famine is the ultimate failure of the international community.” Why is it a failure of the international community?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We have enough food in the world to feed people, and we have to find a way – we have to use the tools that we have at hand – to ensure that we get food to people where they need it. And we can do it. So, we just have to work smarter, we have to work more consistently, we have to work with much more a sense of urgency to address these food insecurity crises. And we’ve done some of that, and we’ve seen some actions by many countries, and we’ve seen some improvements. But as I noted in Mogadishu, it’s not enough, and we can’t do it all. And so I made a call of desperation to the rest of the world to join us in this fight so that we don’t ever have to watch a young child die in front of our eyes.
QUESTION: United Nations officials said, in Mogadishu, that it appeared that the world had sent its aid to Ukraine, understandably so, but that they were out of interest or out of money when it came to East Africa. Is that correct?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I disagree with that statement. We continue to support Somalia and other places in the world. The aid we are providing to Ukraine is new money; it is not assistance that we’ve taken from anywhere. And I know there is a belief among many that that is the case, and while Ukraine is a priority, everywhere else is a priority as well and we’re continuing to support the needs wherever they arise.
QUESTION: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, it’s a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much, and it was great talking to you as well, Steve.