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The world stands on the brink of an unprecedented four famines in 2017. Photo courtesy of Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Three times America led the world in famine relief — and twice it did not

By Pieta Woolley

It’s “the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of the United Nations.” And it’s happening now. So what is it?

Lingering and nearly lost amidst stories about the French elections, Canada’s floods, the imminent nuclear war with North Korea, the MTV awards, the new Anne of Green Gables series on the CBC and much more, headlines concerning the famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria are utterly horrifying. Twenty million people, largely the so-far survivors of brutal civil wars, are now without food.

With sickening synchronicity, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration are contemplating cutting aid spending by 30 percent and spending on the United Nations by 50 percent, as Observer Publisher and Editor David Wilson notes in his May column.

“You’d think the optics of slashing American aid while other countries were stepping up might have occasioned some soul-searching in Washington,” Wilson writes. “But in Donald Trump’s scheme of things, it’s more important to boost military spending by $54 billion or to squander over $21 billion on a security wall than it is to feed starving Africans or to educate their children.

“Tragically, it’s likely only a matter of time before all-too-familiar photos of skeletal kids and their haunted parents begin to show up in the media. They will be the face of this famine.”

What America does is important. It’s a wealthy country with the capacity to give generously and make an impact. Even since the 1840s, the country has positioned itself as a moral leader in international famine relief.

In fact, that moral leadership is a foundation of the country’s identity.   

“The United States . . . laid claim to the notion that nations could be based on ideals as well as interests,” the Encyclopedia of the New American Nation explains. “Religious beliefs also contributed to American conceptions of their role in the world. In addition to developing a vision of a city on a hill, a model community as exemplar to the world, the Puritans and other Christian groups emphasized the importance of doing good, which was interpreted in light of the biblical injunction to love thy neighbor.”

Of course, whenever people have been starving, the U.S. hasn’t always been there. But when it does show up, it demonstrates its unique capacity for offering relief.

Here are three times that America led the world in famine relief — and, well, twice it did not.

1. The Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1852

What: An agricultural fungus, blight, damaged Irish potato crops, leading to severe food shortages that were compounded by the British-forced export of Irish-grown grain.  

Deaths: 1.5 million

U.S. President: Democrat James Polk (to 1849)

America’s response:
The U.S. absorbed more than a million Irish immigrants during these years and sent US$500,000 as famine relief — a first.

2. The Russian Famine between 1921 and 1923

What: The First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution shredded the Russian economy — a situation made much worse by a drought. 

Deaths: 5 million

U.S. President:
Republican Warren Harding

America’s response: The American Relief Administration (ARA) was formed by Congress after the First World War to address European poverty. Congress gave US$20 million for Russian relief — a sum that was delivered by American and Russian staffers. It fed about 10 million Russians. The ARA’s director, future U.S. President Herbert Hoover, is credited with saving more people than anyone else in history.  

3. The Dutch Famine of 1944 and 1945

What: In the German-occupied Northern territory, the Axis cut off food and fuel supplies to about 4.5 million people nearing the end of the Second World War. 

Deaths: 22,000

U.S. President: Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, an American of Dutch heritage

America’s Response: Allied forces negotiated with the Germans to allow “Operation Chowhound” (U.S.) and “Operation Manna” (U.K., Canada, New Zealand, Poland), which dropped food from airplanes over the region. The U.S. dropped 4,800 tonnes of food and flew more than 2,500 sorties in a week.  

4. Bangladesh Famine of 1974

What: Two years after the Bangladeshi war for independence, which left 6 million homeless, floods damaged rice crops, and the price of food spiked.

Deaths: 1.5 million

U.S. President: Republican Gerald Ford

America’s response: The U.S. used 2.2 million tonnes of food aid as a pawn to stop Bangladesh from selling jute to Cuba. By the time Bangladesh agreed, the worst of the famine was over.

5. Current famine in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria

What: The largest humanitarian crisis in the 72-year history of the United Nations has been caused by years by civil war.

Deaths: Unknown, but an estimated 20 million are facing starvation.

U.S. President: Republican Donald Trump

America’s response: Last year, under former U.S. President Barack Obama, the country provided much of the aid to the area. This year, the Trump administration has proposed slashing 30 percent from the U.S. Agency for International Development budget.

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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