On Wednesday, October 25th, Mom Bloggers from the ONE campaign came to the White House to meet with Dr. Jill Biden, Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Gayle Smith, Special Assistant and Senior Director for Development and Democracy in the National Security Staff.
Bonded by their experiences from their recent trips to Africa, the participants spoke about the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa. Dr. Biden, who had recently travelled to Kenya with Administrator Shah and Smith, listened to the Mom Bloggers as they described their encounters with women and children in the troubled region. Dr. Shah highlighted specific issues and described what USAID has done to address some of these concerns. Smith urged the Mom Bloggers to continue to bring attention to the issue by talking about their experiences and helping Americans recognize that there are more commonalities than differences between us and those suffering in the Horn. For more information on the Crisis in the Horn of Africa, visit the USAID website to learn about the FWD Campaign.
Dr. Biden, Dr. Shah and Gayle Smith meet with Mom Bloggers in the Roosevelt Room, Oct. 25, 2011. (Photo by Ashita Ganguly)
The Mom bloggers reflect on their meeting at the White House and suggest ways to foster change within the region:
At the meeting’s outset, we watched a brief video of Dr. Biden’s trip to eastern Africa where she saw the famine crisis up front. And in recounting her experience in Africa, Dr. Biden sounded much like the ten of us who traveled to Kenya as ONE MOMS. It was extremely powerful to hear how her story of traveling to eastern Africa mirrored our own. While we didn’t visit refugee camps while in Africa, we were all struck by the abject poverty in Africa and moved by what more we could do to help save the lives of others. It was an extremely productive meeting with like minds. Dr. Raj Shah, Administrator for USAID, discussed some of the challenges that face countries like Somalia and Kenya as this famine worsens. According to Dr. Shah, 750,000 people could die in the region over the next six months if aid resources fail to increase exponentially. In fact, 30,000 children have already died according to Dr. Shah. The good news is that implementation of strategies such as vaccinations and health interventions through President Obama’s Feed the Future program are seeing real success. With the help of USAID, western Kenya has experienced a 300% increase in crop yield and 330,000 livestock have been vaccinated. These are the types of program implementations that will prevent famines in the future.
We learned firsthand from Dr. Biden about the famine in Somalia and while she was speaking, I imagined this famine stricken country being a foreign aid donor someday. She had just returned from a visit to the Horn of Africa where she got up close and personal with the issue and the families it is impacting. We talked about statistics, but mostly about people—the mothers and children who are suffering, what they are facing, and the hope they have when we get involved and reach out our hand to help lift them out of the dire circumstances in which they find themselves. We discussed the Feed the Future program funded by USAID, making it possible for farmers in Kenya to thrive in agriculture, preventing famine in their country.
The people and the stunning need of so many impacted Dr. Biden right where it hits any mom who sees children suffering- in the heart. She described her complete empathy for the mothers who travelled many miles with babies in tow to the refugee camps- “There are no lengths a mother will not go to to protect her child,” she said, and I so agree.
But there are lengths so many of us will never need to go to. Will never face, or likely even begin to be able to comprehend. The enormity of the 29,000 or more children who have perished in the famine in the last THREE MONTHS is so breathtakingly horrific that it seems impossible, like it must be a miscalculation.
And it is, but it isn’t of sums. It’s of famine as a natural disaster, a tsunami of sorts that must crest before breaking. But the famine is created by a combination of drought, political circumstances, and a tenuous food security situation at the best of times- when one element is unstable in an area so riding the edge of subsistence, the impact is borne by the citizenry’s most vulnerable.
Being a member of the ONE Moms Advisory Council has presented me with opportunities that I know many moms only dream of, but through it all my one hope is that mom’s everywhere see their unique opportunity to make a difference and risk stepping outside of their comfort zone to be a voice for the most vulnerable. Knowing that a child is dying every 6 minutes in the Horn of Africa we need to use every possible resource we have to be their advocates. I may only be ONE mom, but I am ONE amongst many. If we can all talk, write, Facebook, tweet, and share the facts this story will get heard. We need to do what and ALL that we can.
When I had the opportunity this week to meet with Dr. Jill Biden, USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and Gayle Smith from the National Security Council I was there for ALL moms. Hearing the depth of compassion and the sense of urgency as Dr. Biden shared her stories from her recent trip to the refugee camps in the Horn of Africa I wanted to soak it in so that I could carry her experience out with me. When I was in Kenya I was able to see programs funded through USAID working. Administrator Raj Shah is focused and determined to address this situation and see that our investments are saving lives, building communities, and creating stability. As Gayle Smith from the National Security Council so clearly pointed out as she answered my question, when we provide individuals with food, shelter, and medicine we give them dignity which is important, especially in large ungoverned spaces. People with dignity tend to “act right”. As moms we all want our kids to live in a peaceful, stable world.
The time flew -- we had an hour, and it honestly felt like about twenty minutes. There was so much that we talked about and shared, but these were the highlights (considerably paraphrased, and as close as I can remember):
Dr. Shah, on the current famine in East Africa: When we were there, about 50% of the kids we saw were suffering from acute malnutrition. And it's funny, because people think well, of course, famine is awful, but once the rain comes, the food will grow, and everything will be all right again. But of course, this isn't the case: when the rains come, waterborne diseases are going to wash over these weakened children, and even more will die. This is why it is important to get the right information out. When people have the information, and realize that it is within their power to help alleviate famine, they become our most powerful advocates.
Ms. Smith, when asked if there was any correllation between investing in foreign aid & national security: Well, obviously outside of the fact that helping others is just a good thing to do, it's also important to invest in foreign aid because there are three issues that we are dealing with: first, we know that deeply unstable countries where there are vast ungoverned areas are dangerous. Terrorists move in to these areas, and become dangerous for our national security.
Secondly, at its heart, this is about dignity -- by investing in foreign aid, famine relief, and so on, we help restore dignity to the people of these countries.
And finally, investing in foreign aid simply helps in foreign trade -- ultimately, countries which can get on their own feet become trade partners, which overall, helps the global economy.
We asked hard questions and agreed on real solutions. There is hope even in the incredibly difficult issues of extreme poverty, education, disease, famine and funding. Every now and then I had to remind myself where I was and whose company I was in. Ideas are powerful and somehow, as a full time mom from the Midwest, I was sitting in the White House at a meeting as we shared ideas of how to help other moms and families just like our own.
The experience of motherhood is universal no matter who you are or where you live. It matters what is happening to other moms and children worldwide. Or as Dr. Biden put it, “We’re all in this together.
Karen Ricahrdson is an Associate Director of Public Engagement.