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Millions At Risk Of Starvation And Most Americans Don't Know


The United Nations says the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II is taking place. Some 20 million people in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan are at risk of starving to death in crises driven by conflict and drought. Yet a report out this month from the International Rescue Committee says just 15 percent of Americans are even aware of the crisis. David Miliband is president of the IRC. He's, of course, also former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, and he joins us now from New York. Mr. Miliband, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning, Scott. It's very good to be with you.

SIMON: You've recently been in South Sudan. Did you see a situation that seems to be improving or getting worse?

MILIBAND: I saw a situation in South Sudan definitely getting worse. A million refugees have fled from South Sudan to Uganda next door. I saw the consequences in Uganda, which is dealing with the influx in a remarkable way. In South Sudan itself, a country of about 10 million people now, 4 or 5 million are in desperate humanitarian need, and a famine was declared in Unity state. And I saw emaciated children. I saw people who had trekked for days without food to find safety. And I found humanitarian aid teams really at the end of that tether as they tried to keep people alive.

SIMON: The United States has promised almost $2 billion this year to try and address the crisis. But I do have to ask, do the United States and the United Kingdom help foment suffering by supporting the Saudi intervention into Yemen's civil war, which, of course, Human Rights Watch has criticized?

MILIBAND: Yeah. But there are sins on both sides of the Yemen conflict. But there's no doubt that the U.N. figures are clear. Ten thousand civilians have been killed as a result of the Saudi-led coalition's efforts. Half of all hospitals in Yemen are no longer working. We at the International Rescue Committee have about 150 to 200 staff on the ground in Yemen. And they are struggling every day to do their jobs because of the conduct of the war.

And there is a desperate need both for international humanitarian law to be observed in the conduct of the war to protect civilians but also for a move towards political negotiations and a political settlement, because it is now nearly two years since I sat at the United Nations with foreign ministers from the Gulf States who said they wanted a political settlement then. But it is no closer, and the bombing has undoubtedly deepened the divide inside Yemen and made it far harder to bring peace.

SIMON: And this is the conduct of the war by Saudi Arabia?

MILIBAND: The Saudi-led coalition has air power. The Houthis, who are an Iranian-backed rebel group, are on the ground. It's not the job of these humanitarians to take sides in the conflict. We don't take sides in the conflict. What we do is call out the abuse of international humanitarian law on all sides. And the striking thing about the Yemen conflict and the three other countries that are in danger of famine in Africa - in Somalia, in South Sudan that we've talked about, north and northeast Nigeria - these are man-made famine.

SIMON: Mr. Miliband, you've been a politician. How do you sustain interest in problems that are very remote from the lives of everyday Americans?

MILIBAND: I think that there is some teaching to be done about the modern world. And it's a teaching for politicians, but it's teaching by politicians. In my own - the country that I come from, obviously, the outside world in the form of the European Union has being pushed away as a result of the Brexit referendum a year ago. I think it's absolutely vital that politicians do stand up and say, for reasons of heart and head, international engagement matters. For reasons of heart, when you see people in need and when you know that it's not inevitable that they're going to die, then it's vital to appeal to people's conscience. And what's interesting about the poll that you cited is that although less than 20 percent of Americans know about the famine, when they're told about it, 75 - 78 percent of millennials, 75 percent of grandparents want to do something. So when people understand, there is concern. It's turned into action.

SIMON: David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, thank you so much.

MILIBAND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.