Readers over a certain age will remember a distinctive series of television commercials that ran during their favorite TV shows in the 1980s. Featuring impoverished children — their suffering visible on their little bodies or by their dire surroundings as a celebrity voiceover urges viewers to donate 70 cents a day or $20 a month to sponsor food, medicine, etcetera etcetera — these commercials became so prolific that they were parodied on shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color” and the organizations they represented drew scrutiny from investigators and journalists who looked into their management and funding.
Despite the beating these organizations took from satirists and the public, many still exist today, and some actually do good work to house, feed, vaccinate, and educate poor children and families in various places all around the world.
The military conflict in Syria has been ongoing since 2012, but it was when the 2015 photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old refugee who drowned off the shores of Turkey, shocked the American consciousness that many Americans became aware of the depth of the desperation of Syrian refugees and the dangers they face. A lot of the crises producing the current waves of refugees around the world are man-made and have tough, but possible, political solutions.
The Syrian refugee crisis has overflowed into Europe via Turkey and through unsafe water passage through the Greek Isles. European nations have struggled to balance their economic and security concerns with the needs of the refugees and other migrants, as well as their obligations to the European Union and their international partners. The U.S., too, has fought internally for years over the security and economic implications of this crisis, as we saw during the 2016 election campaign, the travel ban, and the crackdown on refugees coming into the country.
But Americans tend to have short attention spans when it comes to global crises, and it takes a strong visual to return our collective attention back to those suffering in other places.
Enter the Yemeni food crisis.
In recent weeks, the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen’s ongoing civil war blockaded Yemen’s largest and most critical ports of entry for food, medicine, and other essential supplies in response to a ballistic missile fired deep into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis — the ostensibly Iranian-backed rebel group that overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014. This, in turn, has led to a humanitarian crisis that the United Nations has deemed the worst in the world. That’s saying a lot.
The news program “60 Minutes” recently aired a report on the crisis, using images and video sent to them by citizen journalists on the ground, whom they hired because their journalists were barred from entering Yemen. According to the report, approximately 7 million Yemenis are at imminent risk of death by starvation. This, more than an outbreak of cholera, more than the relentless bombing campaigns that have faced scrutiny by humanitarian and war watchdog groups, may have finally caught our attention.
Last Wednesday, just as millions of Americans were preparing Thanksgiving feasts, the Saudis announced they would lift the blockade on Yemen for humanitarian aid, which presumably would include food and water. It remains unclear how long this will last, and how much it will help. Also unclear is whether, and for how long, we will care.
Seth Jacobson is a legislative and national security analyst.