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White House Stance on South Sudan Unclear

In this photo taken June 17, 2017, men, women and children line up to be registered with the World Food Program for food distribution in Old Fangak, in Jonglei state, one of the worst affected areas for food insecurity in South Sudan.

Questions are surfacing over whether the Trump administration will continue to support South Sudan when the proposed White House budget seeks to cut nearly a third of the U.S. State Department budget and diminish funding for development projects and humanitarian aid in Africa.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's plan to merge all or parts of the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department and close 40 percent of USAID missions abroad raises concerns that South Sudan will fall off the administration's radar screen.

Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it would be hard for the U.S. government to ignore South Sudan's humanitarian crisis after it played such a critical role in its independence from Sudan in 2011.

"I think it's going to be difficult to turn our backs on this crisis because we have so much ownership over what has happened there; good and bad, and I think there's a strong constituency still within Congress around this, and there’s a strong, faith-based constituency in the United States that has been very vocal over the years on matters pertaining to South Sudan as well as matters pertaining internally to Sudan, the government to the north," Morrison said.

Displaced South Sudanese gather during a visit by the United Nations to a new site for displaced people in Bentiu, South Sudan, June 18, 2017.
Displaced South Sudanese gather during a visit by the United Nations to a new site for displaced people in Bentiu, South Sudan, June 18, 2017.

Envoys yet to be named

The Trump administration has yet to name a special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, a position that has been vacant for several months. Morrison said the White House has also yet to nominate a person to fill the post of assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, which is the top administration envoy to the continent.

"I don't think that waiting well into 2018 to begin to fill some of these most elementary jobs is a wise course at all. I think that many people with very widely differing political views share that opinion," Morrison told "South Sudan in Focus."

But Congresswoman Karen Bass, a Democrat from California, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, said she believes Tillerson and President Donald Trump are working on the appointments. Bass and the subcommittee recently met with the secretary of state, but the focus was on the more pressing issue of emergency funding to alleviate famine in South Sudan.

The concern now is "we have passed the budget but the money has not gotten out the door yet. So if I were to meet with him today, my conversation would be different," Bass told "South Sudan in Focus."

Searching for funding

In recent weeks, the executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program, David Beasley, has been making high-profile pitches to the European Union and other institutions to step up spending on the crisis. Beasley is a former South Carolina governor who supported Trump, raising hopes among aid groups that he can influence the president's thinking.

According to U.N. officials, efforts to supply enough food to stem the crises in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are falling short. Of the $4.9 billion sought in February by the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for immediate needs in those countries, just 39 percent had been donated as of last week.

White House provides funding

The White House announced over the weekend $639 million in famine relief for South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. From that amount, $199 million is slated to go to South Sudan and neighboring countries who are hosting hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees.

And there's more coming, thanks to a bipartisan coalition in Congress, Bass said.

"All of us pushed back on the cuts to the State Department and to U.S. aid, so I think that's the good news. We had a meeting with Tillerson and there just is no support for those cuts; Democrats or Republicans in the House," Bass told VOA.

The possibility that four famines could descend on the world at once is thought to be unprecedented. In South Sudan, famine took hold in February and lasted about four months before conditions improved, but the country remains on the brink of a relapse.

Man-made famines

Three of the potential famines are driven by man-made conflict. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, is battling Houthi rebels supported by Iran. South Sudan has descended into civil war. And the fight against the Boko Haram militant group in northeast Nigeria has contributed to hunger there. The fighting has limited people's access to food, water and land that they could cultivate.

Somalia's struggle has been driven largely by a lack of rainfall and a spike in food prices.

Aid workers have pointed out that even though the risk of famine appears limited to Yemen, Somalia, northeast Nigeria and South Sudan, food insecurity is a problem elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa.