Transcript of Dina Esposito’s Interview with VOA

VOA:  Thank you very much for your time, Dina Esposito, Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the USAID.  Thank you very much.
Let us begin with the purpose of your visit to Ethiopia.  Tell me why you are here and what you have been doing so far.

Ms. Esposito:  Thanks.  Thanks for talking to me today.
I am here looking first-hand at the impact of the historic drought that’s in Ethiopia today.  We know that this is the worst drought to hit Ethiopia in 50 years.  And I’m looking at how USAID relief and development programs interact to build the resilience of communities to resist the drought, and I’m also looking at the scope and scale of the crisis and understanding how humanitarian assistance efforts are blending with and layered onto our development programs in order to respond to the scope and scale of the crisis which we know is extremely severe here in Ethiopia.

VOA:  I understood you have been to the drought-affected areas.  Tell me what you learned there.

Ms. Esposito:  I traveled to four woredas in Oromia and SNNPR.  And there we visited with a variety of households who have been benefiting from programs which we call our Building the Resilience of Communities.  These were very uplifting stories of people who through the support of USAID had been able to graduate from the Productive Safety Net Program and who were able to weather the drought without that kind of relief assistance.  And what was the solution that they were pointing to was that they had diversified their livelihoods.  They were not just dependent on rain-fed agriculture, but had diversified into petty trade and livestock and other interventions and accessing micro credit. So these were very positive stories.

I also visited a Humanitarian Relief Distribution, a Therapeutic Food Distribution, and a Health Center, a Health Post to visit with some of the mothers whose children were suffering from malnutrition.

VOA:  Tell me how the U.S. has been responding to the crisis?  I know the figure has been increasing.  Where do we stand now?

Ms. Esposito:  So the United States has provided over a half a billion dollars to respond to the drought in Ethiopia.  We knew early on, thanks to early warning, that this drought was coming and we responded by prepositioning food and beginning to sort of pivot with some of our development programs to address needs across a range of livelihoods as well as food assistance, water, sanitation, nutrition programming.  So a full package, if you will, of interventions.

The United States this year has provided three times more food assistance than it provided last year because the needs, of course, are extraordinary.  We know that more than 10 million people are in need of food assistance.  We know that 6 million people are in need of water.  1.7 million people need seed.  2.1 million people are malnourished.  We have a long of numbers that tell us how acute it is, and we know that there’s a humanitarian appeal out for 1.4 billion dollars.

So we’ve responded robustly and we’re calling on other donors to respond robustly in collaboration with, of course, the government of Ethiopia which is leading on this response and has also given hundreds of millions of its own dollars to assist in the relief effort.

VOA:  As you said, more than 10 million people are in need of emergency food assistance.  The UN is saying there will be food only until May 1st.  How concerned are you about this?

Ms. Esposito:  So we were able to see food distribution in the field.  We know that some of the distributions were late in January, but we’ve been spending time, we see that the distributions are picking up rapidly.  In all the locations I visited there were distributions that had occurred.

We are pressing to look at all of the logistics blockages and challenges there might be to getting the food out on a monthly basis at scale to 10 million people and we’re doing that in collaboration with the UN, which is bringing in more trucks and more people, and doing more gap analysis on what’s needed and in cooperation, of course, with the Ethiopian government which we are urging to break through bottlenecks, streamline procedures and systems so that we can move collectively more rapidly to reach people in need.  And of course the NGO community and the communities themselves are vital actors in helping the whole relief system work.

VOA:  There is a 9-day campaign underway by UN OCHA and its’s humanitarian partners to breach the 700-million-dollar gap between what’s needed and what has so far been secured.  Are you involved in that campaign?

Ms. Esposito:  We’re aware of the campaign and we think it’s an excellent idea to sound the alarm that we cannot be complacent.  There is an urgency to responding now and stepping up the pace because the worst is yet to come.  We know that the summer months is where we’re going to have the most acute needs and we all need to work harder to deliver the resources and to get the response at the scale it needs to be.

The United States will provide additional resources to this relief response.  We are calling on other donors to do the same. We’re calling on the government to collaborate with us and to help us help them by streamlining the bureaucratics and moving things forward quickly.

VOA:  As part of this campaign a delegation of UN humanitarian partners of the government of Ethiopia will visit Washington early next week.  Tell us what will happen there.

Ms. Esposito:  I can’t speak to the full schedule, but certainly they will meet with senior officials at USAID.  They’ll be going to New York to explain to the UN representatives in New York City the gravity of the crisis and what needs to be done.

VOA:  If there are plans to, before I go to that. Do you think there will be an announcement by the United States during this visit of the humanitarian partners’ delegation to Washington?

Ms. Esposito:  There will be another announcement by the United States but it may not be during that visit.  I don’t know yet the time line for that announcement.

VOA:  There is a plan by the Ethiopian government and the humanitarian partners to revise HRD’s humanitarian requirement document.  Are you concerned that people in need of emergency food assistance, the number of people will increase?

Ms. Esposito:  I am concerned.  Yes.

VOA:  And what is the concern?

Ms. Esposito:  I think that we know that the [belg] rains have started, but there’s an urgency in getting seed out to farmers now, and that the lean season is ahead of us, right?  We know that the worst and most acute hunger season in Ethiopia is ahead of us.  We’re still looking at June, July, August.  So these are, this is what I worry about is that the numbers will grow during the lean season.

VOA:  Let’s talk about logistics.  Eight organizations are talking about inadequate logistical capacity to efficiently manage the increasing relief commodity fleets and commodity at Port of Djibouti.  How much of a concern it is?

Ms. Esposito:  So you may know that on March 3rd the United States launched a Disaster Assistance Response Team, we call that a DART.  That’s a group of expert who come into a country in order to mitigate the impact of a natural disaster like drought and provides advice around logistics and other sectors.

We sent an assessment team to the Port of Djibouti and we have identified ways to improve the offloading, and we’re seeing some progress by adding additional trucks and prioritizing humanitarian assistance over other commodities coming into the port.  It bears watching.  We’re seeing some improvement.  But it is absolutely vital that we keep those port operations running smoothly.

VOA:  The current drought has also affected neighboring countries other than Ethiopia.  How do you deal with the different countries?

Ms. Esposito:  El Nino is a strange phenomenon, right?  Because in some cases it actually improves crop conditions.  Kenya happens to be in less need of humanitarian assistance than in many years previous.  Even parts of south central Somalia are somewhat improved although they are having a drought in the north.

We look at each country and look at the food security indicators of those countries and try to make determinations on how best to focus our resources.

I’ll be traveling to southern Africa in May with a U.S. delegation to draw attention to the looming drought in southern Africa.  Their most acute needs will come at the end of this calendar year and early next year.  So again, early warning.  We have it.  We’re making an effort of early response.

VOA:  Let me bring you back to Ethiopia.  This is also a time when the Ethiopian government has been criticized of killings in Oromia and in other parts of the country following the protests there.  How do you balance humanitarian aid and your concerns on the humanitarian situations here?

Ms. Esposito:  Our humanitarian aid is very much focused on needs.  So we are focused on what do the food security assessments tell us?  What does the water assessment tell us?  What is needed?  And so it’s very much driven by an impartial and independent assessment of requirements.

VOA:  Thank you very much for your time.

Ms. Esposito:  Thank you.

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