Waging a sunlight campaign

Jeremy Konyndyk '99


Winter 2011

To describe his work, Jeremy Konyndyk ’99 likes to quote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”

Konyndyk is director of policy and advocacy for the global relief and development organization Mercy Corps, and for the past year he’s been working to open the blinds and shed light on the Horn of Africa—specifically on U.S. aid policies toward that drought-stricken region. On the line are three-quarters of a million lives in Somalia alone.

As early as the fall of 2010, a famine early warning system established by the U.S. Agency for International Development was warning that a crisis was fast approaching. Both rainy seasons of the year failed across a broad swath of territory, leaving the driest conditions that most parts of the Horn have seen in 60 years. Crops have failed and livestock have died, leaving over 12 million people without food or income.

Konyndyk testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa that the result “is some of the most devastating human suffering that aid professionals have ever seen.”

Yet, even as many aid professionals saw the famine coming, U.S. assistance to Somalia was declining drastically.

So why didn’t the United States move earlier to do something?

“Since 9/11, counterterrorism has been a policy bulldozer,” Konyndyk said. “It plows every other consideration out of the way. U.S. counterterror policies toward Somalia have led to legal restrictions that, over the past few years, cut off nearly all aid to the parts of the country that have now been hit by famine.

“The security challenges posed by militant groups in Somalia have a huge impact on the ability of aid groups to reach those in need,” he continued, “but, nonetheless, aid would get through if U.S. legal restrictions were lifted. It would be difficult, it would be incomplete, but it would result in fewer people dead and malnourished and displaced than we’re seeing now. Barring that, things will continue to get worse.”

Thanks to a vigorous media campaign conducted by Mercy Corps and other international aid organizations, the Horn of Africa famine—and the U.S. legal restrictions on aid to it—were brightly lit in the public eye for a couple of weeks last summer. This attention spurred the government to make policy revisions that lifted some of its restrictions on aid to Somalia, but only for work directly funded by the U.S. government. This means that Mercy Corps, World Vision and other groups still face major legal hurdles to using private donations to fund relief projects there.

So Konyndyk’s sunlight campaign goes on. And it’s directed not only at the administration.

“This is also an issue for Congress,” he said, “because it needs to appropriate the money to fund a response. U.S. support for global food aid has been cut by half a billion dollars in the past few years, down to under $1.5 billion in 2011. And the House is proposing—in the midst of a famine—to cut a further half-billion dollars this year.”

Sometimes the facts come painfully close to Konyndyk. Last July, just before he was interviewed on PBS’ NewsHour, the program showed video footage shot at a clinic for famine refugees. There, 1-year-old twin boys were being treated for severe malnutrition. Konyndyk is father to 1-year-old twin boys.
“Whatever the political and security factors at play,” he said, “we can never forget that these are real human beings that are dying.”

For more on the famine and what you can do, visit www.mercycorps.org.