Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's wife, is in Kenya with former Republican Sen. Bill Frist and other dignitaries to emphasize the U.S. government's commitment to tackling the famine that has left more than 12 million East Africans in need of food.
During her trip, Biden will visit the Dadaab refugee complex, a camp that receives more than 1,000 Somalis a day and is home to more than 400,000 displaced people. The camp is designed to accommodate about 90,000 refugees.
The region is facing its worst drought in six decades, and the United Nations has declared a state of famine in five regions of Somalia with warnings that the situation is deteriorating and could easily spread. Though food insecurity is also affecting Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda and Ethiopia, the greatest concerns emanate from war-torn Somalia, which has known no central government since 1991.
The United Nations is working to round up $2.5 billion to address the situation, which the organization says could be ongoing for six months or more.
Biden's trip to Dadaab aims to draw attention to the plight of the Horn of Africa and highlight the Feed the Future program, a U.S. government effort aimed at "helping countries transform their own agricultural sectors to grow enough food sustainably to feed their people." She also will visit Nairobi's Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and meet with President Mwai Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Agriculture Minister Sally Kosgei.
To help illuminate the problems facing the overcrowded Dadaab camp, the world's largest refugee complex, Oxfam last month provided a tour of the camp and interviewed people seeking refuge there. The situation has only worsened since then, and the United Nations said reports of children dying en route to the camp are "disturbingly common." The agency further said that almost half the children arriving from southern Somalia are malnourished.
Efforts to supply aid to Somalia have been vexed of late by al-Shabaab, an al Qaeda-linked group that controls much of south and central Somalia and had previously controlled a large chunk of the capital, Mogadishu. The United Nations recently reported that the group, which has called the famine an invention of the West, made up to $100 million a year off extortion, illegal taxation and other fees. Included were taxes on humanitarian aid going into Mogadishu.
Two developments of late may provide some hope for the Horn of Africa's hungry: The United States has relaxed rules that would provide for prosecution of any group providing aid that fell into al-Shabaab's hands, just days before the militants said they were retreating from Mogadishu after heavy fighting with government and African Union troops. Al-Shabaab said the withdrawal was merely a "change in tactics."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees airlifted aid into the capital for the first time in five years Monday. The flight carried 34 tons of aid, including improvised tent sheets, sleeping mats, blankets, water containers and food utensils. Another similar flight is slated for Thursday, and a third planned flight will deliver high-energy biscuits, the refugee agency said.