On 10 April 2016, a little boy is vaccinated against polio in Sa’ada, Yemen.

Trump seeks deep cuts to UN relief programs, just as 20 million people face famine

In a perfect storm, the Trump administration is reportedly seeking deep cuts to UN relief programs, just as 20 million people face famine.

Colum Lynch reports in Foreign Policy that the White House has instructed the State Department and the US Mission to the United Nations to cut US contributions to the UN by 50%. The United States is the largest funder to the UN, in all contributing about $10 billion to the UN and its various agencies, like UNICEF, the World Food Program and the UN Refugee Agency. These organizations depend on American leadership (many are run by Americans) and American funding. Without the latter, they will simply be unable to do their job.  In many cases ‘not doing their job’ means that some of the most vulnerable people on the planet will lose their last lifeline.

The Timing Could Not Be Worse

“We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council last week.”

He was referring to what is known around the UN as the “four famines.” These include one already-declared famine (in South Sudan) and three other situations (Yemen, Somalia, Northern Nigeria) that are extremely food insecure and may soon cross the starvation threshold to “famine.”

People — mostly children under the age of five years-old — are already starving to death in these places. In all 20 million people are in immediate need of food assistance in these places. If they don’t get that assistance, they will starve to death. The last famine– in Somalia in 2011–killed over 250,000 people. This could be worse.

Heading off the famine requires money. In Yemen, the World Food Program says it urgently needs nearly $460 million to reach 7 million people. In Somalia, 6.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1 million children under the age of five face who severe acute malnutrition. UN agencies require $864 million to mount a full response. They have so far received 6% of that. In Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin region, which is still reeling from Boko Haram, only $458 million of a $1.5 billion appeal has been funded.

Millions of people around the world turn to the UN as their last lifeline — they get food from the World Food Program; their children get vaccines and medical care from UNICEF; they get rudimentary shelter and assistance from the UN Refugee Agency.  These agencies are already stretched thin. The Syria civil has caused the biggest global refugee crisis since World War Two, forcing agencies like the WFP to scale back. (And “scaling back” means reducing the caloric intake of the people they serve.)

Even small cuts to their budgets have profound implications for the people they serve. A massive cut from the single largest funder could cause a generation-wide catastrophe the likes of which the world has never seen.