PHOTO: Palu, Indonesia

A scene from Palu, the city most affected by the tsunami that struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Sept 28, 2018 following a 7.5 magnitude earthquake.

THE earthquake and tsunami that struck Indonesia over the weekend is a call to action to help those in need overseas. It’s also a reminder as to why our foreign aid programs are so vital.

Over 1,000 people have died in the Indonesia disaster. Over a million civilians were impacted and will need long term aid to rebuild. These numbers will likely grow higher as relief teams reach more villages.

Help from the United States is crucial for Indonesia, but also for the many other countries victimized by disasters and conflict.

At the UN General Assembly meetings last month, José Graziano da Silva, director of its Food and Agriculture Organization, warned: “If we do not create conditions for vulnerable people and communities to thrive and live with dignity, this will trigger conflict, instability and forced migration.”

The U.S. and the international community need to do more to help the world’s poor. Instead of misplaced budget priorities focused on excessive military spending or building giant border walls, the focus should be more on foreign aid and development.

While President Trump has taken an approach toward reducing foreign aid, the reality is we cannot become isolationist. We cannot ignore those suffering from hunger and poverty, even in lands far away.

As the UN warns, ”There will be no sustainable peace if people continue to be left behind.”

As we speak, millions of people in Africa’s Sahel region (Mauritania, northern Senegal, and parts of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad) are living in hunger and conflict. Severe drought has struck, ruining crops and the food supply. The Sahel has also been terrorized by the armed group Boko Haram, with civilians being displaced and losing their farmland.

Boko Haram and other terrorist groups thrive on the desperation of civilians. They boost their recruiting amid chaos and hunger.

The only thing sustaining the people in these countries from starvation is relief agencies like the World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, UNICEF, Mercy Corps and others. But they need more resources because the needs are so massive.

If we cannot sustain the humanitarian relief, communities will slip back into hunger. Without enough support, we cannot help farmers build resilience to drought. They will lose hope.

United States Food for Peace is one of the aid programs that President Trump has threatened to eliminate. Yet this initiative has done great work in funding the humanitarian agencies in the Sahel. Food for Peace, with more funding from Congress, could do a lot more to help the Sahel and other regions in distress.

The McGovern–Dole Food for Education program, which Trump also targeted for elimination, is another lifesaver in the Sahel.

In Mali, Catholic Relief Services is using a grant from McGovern-Dole to provide school meals. Niek de Goeij of CRS Mali says the food “is often the primary meal (and during the hunger season the only meal) children receive and a major incentive for parents to send their children to school…. Without education, as these children grow older, they have less livelihood opportunities and are easier prey for rebel and terrorist groups.”

Imagine if more children in the Sahel region could get these meals, especially if farmers in these developing countries could provide the food. CRS and other agencies are asking Congress to increase funding for the McGovern-Dole program.

The civil wars in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan have increased hunger and poverty among those devastated populations. We need more aid to these nations to save lives and help them rebuild.

The recent UN alert of drought in Central America also brings more urgency to the foreign aid debate. Families are losing their key crops—corn and beans. They have nothing to eat and nothing to sell to earn income. Under such desperation, you can see why they would migrate.

Hunger and drought is what is forcing people to leave Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to come to the United States. If we provide more help in their home countries, they won’t have to make that desperate journey.

Former U.S. Army Chief and Secretary of State George Marshall once said that American foreign policy should be directed “against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” We need that approach today, especially with so many people around the globe living in poverty.

Helping those in need is our best pathway to peace. That’s why we must continue our tradition of foreign aid.

William Lambers is an author who partnered with the UN World Food Program on the book, “Ending World Hunger.” He writes for Catholic Relief Services, the History News Network, the Hill and other media outlets.

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