Africa: Briefing on Dr. Jill Biden's Recent Visit to Kenya
Tue, 09 Aug 2011 12:50:32 -0500

Briefing on Dr. Jill Biden's Recent Visit to Kenya

Eric P. Schwartz
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Senator Bill Frist, and Special Assistant to the President Gayle Smith
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC

August 9, 2011

MR. TONER: Thank you, and thanks to all of you for joining us this morning. As you know, East Africa is facing the worst drought in 60 years, and the UN has declared that famine now affects five regions in Somalia and predicts that it could expand throughout the southern Somalia.

Over the weekend, Dr. Jill Biden led a delegation to Kenya to view firsthand the situation on the ground. And joining us this morning to discuss that trip as well as our overall assistance efforts in the region are several members of the delegation – Special Assistant to the President Gayle Smith, Senator Bill Frist, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Eric Schwartz.

Just a reminder that this is an on-the-record briefing this morning. And so with that, I’ll hand it over to our first speaker, Gayle Smith.


MS. SMITH: Sure. Thanks, Mark. Good morning, everybody, and thanks for joining us. We were also joined on the trip by USAID Administrator Raj Shah, who is on a plane right now. Otherwise, he’d be on the call with us.

Dr. Biden wanted to do this trip – and thankfully, Senator Frist agreed to join us very early on – to highlight the crisis in the Horn of Africa and basically help mobilize both an American response, but also a global response to a crisis that is acute – I’m sure you’ve all heard the figures of 29,000 kids dying in the last 90 days – but to also underscore the fact that there is a lot we can about it; that we can get assistance to people; that the people in Kenya and Ethiopia, while adversely affected, are in a better position today than they might have been because of things that have been done over the last 10 years; and importantly, that in the long range, we can also support food security.

We visited the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute, which is supported by the U.S. Government, as a way of highlighting, again, that there are things we can do to reduce the prevalence of famine in the future. We traveled to the Dadaab refugee complex, where Dr. Biden, Senator Frist, and the rest of us were able to both see the relief operations that are going on and meet with many of the Somali refugees that have recently walked to Kenya from inside Somalia.

What we’d like to do this morning is hear from Senator Frist and my colleague Eric Schwartz. I can help address any questions that may come from – for AID given that Raj Shah is unable to be with us. And then we’d like to open up to questions.

So Senator, if I could turn over to you first, and thank you again for joining us on the trip.

SENATOR FRIST: Gayle, thank you. And I’ll be brief. People over the next couple of days are going to ask again and again why in the world did Dr. Biden and all of us take this trip. I went at the invitation of Dr. Biden with a real purpose of helping – in addition to looking to the healthcare needs, which I as a physician do, but really drawing some attention so that the world better understands the size of this catastrophe, the needs, and the fact that in spite of the U.S. stepping up and the world stepping up, the demands and the needs are growing even faster than what is being provided. So it’s not just to learn, but also to help mobilize a domestic response, but also an international response to what a lot of people don’t realize, especially in this environment, of what’s happening in terms of the economy here and at home, but this is the most acute food security emergency anywhere in the world now and in recent years.

As a physician, I did spend time looking at the health and the health needs of the people of the Horn of Africa in part because through our past experiences and as underscored by USAID by focusing on the health needs and therapeutic feeding, we really engage one of the most effective ways of lifting people up in times of need. Food is very important, response in terms of food security, critically important, but the health needs themselves, also very important, and some would even say a prime area of importance.

The crisis is growing fast, and we saw that firsthand on the ground and talking to individual families as they were coming into refugee camps who literally have walked for 15 and 16 days – a mom with her four children, a husband, a father who is absent who is still in Somalia; they don’t know whether or not he’s alive. I think the things we can do is two things – make sure the world knows this is unfolding and know that people’s help and investment, as they have responded in the past here in America, can make a huge, huge difference.

Now with that, I’ll sort of stop because that’s the purpose. Our observations – now it’s up to us to share with the American people and with the world. It’s a nonpartisan issue. I think my presence, in part, demonstrates that. It is everybody coming together in the United States, at a time that many things are very fractured, around a common good and a common cause where past investments have paid off – and we saw that in Kenya, and we saw that in Ethiopia – and where if we continue to invest in the future, we know that these catastrophes don’t reach the threshold that they have today in being one of the great famines of the last 50 years, one of the most tragic famines of the last 50 years.

Now, with that, let me turn to Eric. Again, we had a great team on the ground. We were able to look at these issues from a medical standpoint under Dr. Biden’s leadership putting this team together, under a USAID standpoint, and a State Department and refugee standpoint. With that, let me turn it over to Eric.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Thank you very much, Senator Frist. And let me also say – join my colleague Gayle in thanking you for your willingness to participate in this trip, and we were honored and extremely – your participation was extremely valuable. We – and let me talk a little bit about Kenya if I may.

The Dadaab refugee complex in the – in northeast Kenya is the host to – was already the host to a very large and protracted refugee population on the order of 300,000 refugees or more. And for that and the management of that relief effort over many, many years and the assistance of the management, we’re very grateful to the Government of Kenya that has provided refuge to Somalis.

But what they’ve seen in recent months is an enormous increase in the numbers. Right now, the numbers of refugees in the Dadaab complex is estimated at over 420,000. There are probably about 477,000 Somalis in camps throughout Kenya, but in Dadaab it’s well over 420,000. The refugees from Somalia are coming in at a rate of late of about 1,400 to 1,800 per day, although that number obviously changes as the situation changes. And the challenges are substantial. People are coming in in very, very difficult conditions. The rates of malnutrition are very, very high. It has severely taxed the registration capabilities in the camps.

At the same time, it’s very important to note that the Somalis who are coming in with all of those difficulties are receiving basic food and sustenance when they get in to the camps and that the United Nations is hard at work with the involvement and support of the Government of Kenya on the expansion of this facility. There are three camps in the Dadaab complex, and one of those camps is being expanded substantially. In addition, they’re building a fourth facility as well. So efforts are hard – are underway and are moving forward in terms of expanding the capability of the camps to handle this inflow of Somalis.

Similarly, we are making substantial efforts to provide assistant to the Government of Ethiopia, which is providing about – assistance to about 160,000 Somali refugees, as well as our efforts to provide assistance to those areas within Somalia which we can reach with assistance. So the effort is full on and will continue in the days and weeks and months to come.

The visit, I think, was important in terms of shedding light on the important efforts that are underway and the importance of continued support from the international community. With that, I guess I’ll turn it back either to Gayle or to Mark. I don’t know who our moderator is right now.

MR. TONER: Great. Thanks, Eric. Mark here. Thank you all. And, operator, we’re ready to open it up to questions now. Again, just a reminder this is an on-the-record briefing, and if you could just state your name and media affiliation, that would be a big help.


OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1. To withdraw your request, press *2. Once again, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1. One moment, please, for the first question.

Our first question comes from Mina al-Oraibi. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Good morning. I’m with Asharq Alawsat newspaper, Arabic language paper. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you in terms of international response, I know there is a UN appeal out at the moment, but if you could speak a little more about what can be done on an international scale to support those in Somalia but also those in Ethiopia and Kenya.

MS. SMITH: Sure, I’m happy to take a first cut at this. Eric, you may want to add. This is Gayle Smith.

The UN has issued an appeal, but the biggest need, quite frankly, right now is for cash contributions. That enables folks on the ground, both UN agencies and NGOs, to provide whatever may be needed the most effectively, whether it is food, whether it’s therapeutic feeding, whether it’s access to water and so on.

We’re seeing already, although the response is not as large as it needs to be to keep up with the spread of famine in Somalia and ensure that we are able to prevent conditions from getting worse in Ethiopia or for Kenyans in Kenya and to manage the refugee flow, there are donors contributing from all over the world. But what we need really from everybody is to increase those donations as quickly as possible, again, so we can keep pace.

Eric, do you want to say something about the appeal itself?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: Well, the appeal is – the United States has been a generous contributor to the international appeal. It’s an appeal – a multi-donor agency appeal. I don’t have the specific figures of how much of the appeal has been subscribed, but we’re – but at this point, we’re calling on other governments to really kind of step up to the plate here and give generously to all of the UN agencies.

But a number of the UN agencies also accept contributions from the public, such as UNICEF and others, and contributions from the public in these kinds of situations can be extremely valuable. The nongovernmental community, I should say for example, in the tsunami response a couple of years ago, of the entire amount that was contributed, about 5 billion of the 13 billion that was spent on the tsunami response came from the nongovernmental community supported by private donations. So the role for private donors can be quite substantial in these circumstances.

SENATOR FRIST: Eric, let me pick up on that just a little bit, though the question is really about the international community, only because I’m totally in the private sector now and this is important, especially for everybody on the call. There’s a great need. All of you know that. The data is there. We saw it. The big thing that I want to share with people is that everybody can make a difference, not just the governments per se. And we saw firsthand over the last 36 hours, just how effective these donations can be to improving health and literally, literally saving lives.

People say, well, where to go, and the easiest thing to do is to send people to, In there, on the website, there’s a listing of all the nongovernment organizations, many of whom we saw on the ground working side-by-side in partnership with governments. We really do hope speaking here at home, or I hope and what I really want to be stressing, is that we know that Americans act – we’ve seen it in the past, we saw it at the tsunami, we saw it at the tragedy in Haiti – and to really do what they always do to help those in need. And the big thing is these tiny donations can make a huge difference. And again, the easiest site is the USAID site because they’ve taken the time to put a lot of the nongovernment organizations that we depend on, and you can see which organizations are doing this sort of work.

So yes, the government is important. The support for our past investments we saw firsthand at the agricultural center, but also individual donations to these sites saves lives.

MR. TONER: Thank you. I think we’re ready for our next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The next question comes from Lachlan Carmichael. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes, as far as Kenya is concerned, do you think the Kenyan authorities are measuring up to the scale of the disaster facing them in their own country? I mean, the government spokesman said, I think just last month, that not one Kenyan had died of – as a result of hunger. And apparently, there are harvests in parts of the country that are good but nothing distributed to the areas hit by famine.

MS. SMITH: Let me just say something about that. That’s a – it’s a good question. I think one of the very good things we’re seeing, although obviously more can be done, is that for Ethiopians in Ethiopian and Kenyans in Kenya, as Dr. Frist said, there are a lot of things being done to assist them because they can be reached. Now, there’s more that can be done to make sure that grain stocks available in the region are more accessible and can be moved more freely. We and others are working on that with those two governments to make sure that where food stocks are available, they can be purchased and moved to people who need them.

I think that what we’re seeing – and again, I want to be careful here – is that we don’t have enough assistance even for the people of Ethiopia and Kenya that are affected. But in those cases, for two reasons, we’ve got a slightly better shot than we do with the difficulties we face in Somalia. The first, as Dr. Frist said, is some of the programs that have been put in place by USAID, by other donors, by those governments, to make sure those people are less vulnerable to droughts of this scale. And the second is, again, because they are accessible.

So I can’t answer to whether a single person has died or not. I do think that what we’ve got there is a case that with sufficient assistance, with the agility of those markets to which you point, we really can help get these people through a very bad year of drought and to the next set of rains.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHWARTZ: If I can just comment on a question that – on a question, actually, that perhaps wasn’t asked but is related in terms of the government’s response with respect to the refugee situation, I think we have to give the Government of Kenya substantial credit for its willingness to continue to provide first asylum to this population. After all, if you just take the population of the refugee camps in the Dadaab area, you’re talking about one percent of the entire population of Kenya. And so for the Government of Kenya to continue to provide refuge, as it certainly should – but for the government to continue to do this, I think is – the United States is very appreciative of these efforts and that is why we are doing everything we can to assist the government in its efforts to continue to stay the course on this.

MR. TONER: Thank you. I think we’re ready for our next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Carmen Russell. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello? Hi. Sorry. My question is where exactly is the U.S. aid going? Are we able – I mean, how well are we able to track this? How likely is it that the U.S. itself will step up its contributions as the situation gets worse? And what other political action is the U.S. willing to take?

MS. SMITH: We announced yesterday an additional contribution of $105 million to the regional relief effort, including both people who are affected in their own countries and to the refugee effort, bringing us up to over $560 million. We are the lead donor. But importantly there, we will continue to support the relief effort, but we are also aggressively reaching out to other countries because this is of a scale that we certainly can’t do it alone. We need other countries to step up with us. And I think, as I said earlier, we are seeing that other countries are responding. But part of our mission is both, as I say, to respond but also to reach out and use our position as the United States to encourage other donors to ramp up their responses. So we’re certainly willing to keep doing that, and that’s our intention.

MR. TONER: All right. Thank you. I think we’re ready for our next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Michele Kelemen. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I was wondering – the al-Shabaab pullout of Mogadishu, whether that’s made any difference for access there, and whether you’ve seen any aid agencies taking up your offer to ease restrictions on going into the south of Sudan – Somalia.

MS. SMITH: Again, I’m happy to take this and have others amplify. Hi, Michele.

The move of al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu is a good sign. It’s too early to tell whether it is a good and lasting sign, but it does offer the possibility of getting more assistance in through Mogadishu and to assist people there, because one of the things we’ve seen is the congregation of internally displaced people as Somalis move into Mogadishu in search of assistance.

There are agencies that are moving in to take advantage of that opening. One of the things that we’re very mindful of here is that we want to make sure that NGOs and UN agencies and others that are trying to provide assistance are able to do so in the utmost security, so I’m inclined to be a little bit careful about exactly who is doing what. But one of the very good things we have on hand is some of the most seasoned humanitarian operators in the world, given the complexity of this environment, and they are moving very swiftly to seize every opening that they can possibly have.

USAID is engaged with a number of nongovernmental organizations from around the world, and particularly American NGOs who are looking to ramp up their assistance and are doing that right now. So we are seeing a really, really good response from, as I say, UN agencies, international organizations, and NGOs who are poised and, with our assistance, trying to access every bit that they can as the situation unfolds.

QUESTION: If I could ask just one other question about the aid money that was announced yesterday --

MS. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is that specifically going to any country? Is it going mainly to Kenya --

MS. SMITH: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and Ethiopia or is going into --

MS. SMITH: We can get you a breakdown of that. USAID issued a fact sheet last night, and if you need more information, we’d be happy if you want to check back with Mark. Mark can direct you to one of us who can get you the exact breakdown. But that assistance covers the full range of things for the people of Kenya and Ethiopia, for assistance inside Somalia, and also and importantly, for refugees in both Kenya and Ethiopia, so it’s part of a comprehensive response. But we can get you the specific breakdown after the call if you’d like it.

QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Gayle.

MR. TONER: Yeah. We’ll make sure that we push that out to folks.

Great. Next question?

OPERATOR: At this time, there are no further questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Well, okay, very good, then. Well, I just want to thank all the journalists who joined us this morning and especially thank all of our participants for taking time out to talk about this important issue, and to discuss the trip. So thanks to all of you again and have a very good day.

MS. SMITH: Thank you.