US-style aid sweeps in with a convoy of 29 cars, live on CNN
Published 09/08/2011 | 05:00
WEARING a linen trouser suit, neon-green Nike trainers and a CNN lapel microphone, Jill Biden sat in the shade of an acacia tree and listened solemnly to Fatuma Adem's story.
Watching the wife of the US vice-president touring the world's biggest refugee camp for starving Somalis was a scrum of television cameramen, international reporters and Washington staffers thumbing their BlackBerrys. A circle of Secret Service agents, their oversized shirts flattened by the hot wind on to the outlines of bullet-proof vests and pistols beneath, fanned out, watching "the perimeter".
Parked off to the side, waiting to whisk the visitors back to the airport, was a convoy of 29 polished vehicles, including armoured US embassy Land Cruisers driven the eight hours up from Nairobi the day before.
This is what it looks like when the biggest VIP circus so far comes for a two-and-a-half-hour visit to Dadaab.
The Kenyan town hosts 440,000 Somali refugees in sprawling camps that are now the accessible epicentre of the international famine relief effort.
"All this is a necessary evil," said one senior aid worker, watching CNN's Anderson Cooper interview Mrs Biden against a backdrop of refugees newly arrived from Somalia waiting for food and water.
What makes this relationship between the media and the aid world necessary is the need to find funds to fight the famine. Figures from Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee showed yesterday that the response so far is dwarfed by that for recent natural disasters, including the Haiti earthquake, Pakistan floods and the Indian Ocean tsunami.
A little over half of the €1.9bn needed for the Horn of Africa famine and drought has been raised.
To coincide with the Second Lady's visit, President Obama was expected to announce a fresh injection of €69m of US aid for the crisis.
Mrs Biden said she was here to "raise awareness" among Americans of the famine and drought leaving 12.5 million Kenyans, Somalis and Ethiopians in need of urgent food aid.
US officials privately agreed that the main thrust of the visit was to get the story on to American television channels, which have been slower to report on the crisis than other countries.
News programmes filled with shots of refugees with Mrs Biden, a college teacher with no experience of international aid, would "catalyse Americans' responses to the famine," one Washington staffer said.
But for overstretched aid agencies and the refugees, it was not immediately clear how the whirlwind visit would make a difference.
"It is getting ridiculous, how much time we have to spend dealing with this stuff," said a senior humanitarian official. "This is twice the size of any delegation we've had so far."
It took two days to prepare for the US visit. Advance teams of special forces and Secret Service agents demanded full dress rehearsals and extended security sweeps.
Refugees, including Fatuma Adem, the mother with four children filmed talking to Mrs Biden, were readied in advance.
"I don't know who she is. I just hope she can help my family," Mrs Adem said after meeting the Second Lady. (©Daily Telegraph, London)