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Armed Conflicts Exacerbate Famine In South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia And Yemen


Famine was declared in South Sudan earlier this year, and three other countries - Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen - face food emergencies that could degenerate into famine. More than 20 million people are threatened by the lack of food in those four countries. Armed conflicts and civil wars are exacerbating the crises in these areas. Aid can't get to the people who need it the most.

Winnie Byanyima is the executive director of Oxfam International, an organization of 20 nonprofits working to end poverty around the world. She's been traveling through some of those very affected countries and joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

WINNIE BYANYIMA: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: You were recently in South Sudan and Nigeria. I want you to describe what you saw and heard while you were there.

BYANYIMA: In both countries, I met people who have fled their homes, who have lost everything and who are now living in camps. Most of them are not allowed to venture even a little bit outside the towns that they are in because when they step out to find food or sell something they get attacked, raped, assaulted. And they are frustrated that although they are in a safe town, they are unable to meet the needs of their families. So aid is coming in but not fast enough.

SIEGEL: There is an official status of famine as opposed to food emergency. What is it that constitutes a famine by definition?

BYANYIMA: A famine is when levels of malnutrition in the population have passed 30 percent, where people are actually starving and dying. And it is a sign of failure because in all these cases famine can be predicted. So if you kick in with aid early enough, you can prevent famine. Drought you can't prevent, but famine you can prevent.

SIEGEL: In South Sudan or, for that matter, northeast Nigeria, are aid workers able to assist people? Or is it too dangerous for them?

BYANYIMA: In the case of South Sudan, it is very dangerous to work there. Since the conflict erupted in 2013, 82 humanitarian workers have been killed. This year, 12 humanitarian workers have been killed. Unless humanitarian workers can be protected and food aid is not looted as it is happening now, it's not going to be possible to save lives. The risk is too high.

SIEGEL: I assume that all of this places great pressure on an institution like Oxfam International.

BYANYIMA: Absolutely. We are under tremendous pressure. We are overstretched trying to meet huge need. These four countries where famine is looming need $4.4 billion. And if it doesn't come, the way malnutrition works is that it will escalate exponentially and we're going to lose lives in huge numbers.

SIEGEL: Do you see any grounds at all for optimism in...


SIEGEL: ...Combatting this emergency? Yes.

BYANYIMA: First of all, my optimism comes from the people themselves. Everywhere I went in Nigeria and in South Sudan, ordinary poor people were opening their homes and sharing everything they have with those who are fleeing. That's, for me, something we need to support. So my hope is because the population itself is determined to survive the international community must not fail them.

SIEGEL: Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. Thank you very much.

BYANYIMA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.