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World

State Department Cuts Could Affect Famine Relief In South Sudan

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United Nations says that as many as 20 million people in four countries are facing starvation from armed conflicts and drought. That would be the most widespread famine since the end of World War II. As the crisis grows, the Trump administration is proposing deep cuts to the State Department, which funds humanitarian operations.

Aid agencies fear Washington's budget fights could have devastating consequences, particularly for one of those at-risk nations, which also happens to be the world's youngest country, South Sudan.

PATRICIA DANZI: The international community was very hopeful that this was going to be a prosperous new country. And then, unfortunately, in 2013, the war broke out, and the consequences of this is also felt today.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Patricia Danzi. She's the Africa director for the International Committee of the Red Cross. We reached her via Skype in Maiwut, South Sudan, where she's been coordinating food deliveries.

Patricia, thanks very much for being with us.

DANZI: Thank you. Thanks for your interest.

MARTIN: So this is a new country born out of a civil war, now on the brink of starvation. Can you just describe some of the scenes, some of the stories of the people you've met there?

DANZI: Many of the people in South Sudan are very resilient. They're very strong. They try to find ways to overcome the crises. South Sudan is one of many countries in Africa that has seen war, so access to food, access to water, but also access to health is very difficult to get in many places.

MARTIN: The U.N. itself has been warning of famine there since 2014. So how did we get to this point? Did no one heed those warnings?

DANZI: I think the warning signals were heard by some, but warning signals don't stop the fighting. Warning signals can alert the international community. Warning signals can trigger additional help, but it cannot stop the fighting.

MARTIN: How can agencies like yours actually get to places and get them the food they need when there is, as you say, active fighting going on?

DANZI: We talked to everyone, and we have people on the ground. So we have a long presence in the country and people know us. They trust us. Now, food delivery in South Sudan costs seven times more than it does in Somalia. There are no - hardly any roads. During the rainy season, you cannot get anywhere, so we have to fly. And flights are expensive.

MARTIN: The new administration, the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson - they have argued that the U.S., for a long time, has provided more foreign-aid assistance than any European country. And it's time for those countries to step up. Do you agree that the burden has been disproportionate?

DANZI: I wouldn't call it disproportionate. I would call the U.S. a very generous and responsible country when it comes to foreign aid. The burden definitely has to be shared. It shouldn't be one country that does all the foreign aid, that's clear. But the U.S. has the capacity, the knowledge, the understanding, the tradition to do it. So we don't think that it's a time to abandon the South Sudanese population. On the contrary, it deserves - its people deserve the support from everyone and especially from the United States.

MARTIN: Patricia Danzi is with the International Committee of the Red Cross. We reached her via Skype in Maiwut, South Sudan. Thank you so much for talking with us, Patricia.

DANZI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.