Millions of people in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria faced severe hunger and starvation in 2017, the result of drought, extreme poverty and violent armed conflicts.
The U.S. Agency for International Development responded to this humanitarian crisis under difficult and dangerous conditions, providing $1.4 billion in emergency food and nutrition assistance to some 20 million people—an enormously challenging task led by Matthew Nims and his team from the Office of Food for Peace.
“Matt Nims was out in front, meeting with, informing, coordinating and leading hundreds of USAID staff, others in government and our international partners to choose the right approaches, prioritize the most critical situations and get food to people swiftly and efficiently when lives were at stake,” said Danielle Mutone-Smith of the Office of Food for Peace.
With civil war, violence and terrorism at play, getting aid to the suffering people wasn’t easy.
“Those are four of the hardest and most dangerous places in the world to work,’’ said Robert Jenkins, deputy assistant administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. “Matt provided amazing leadership. Who knows how many lives were saved by the fact that the team was able to step up its game and, with all the problems, keep critical assistance going to people.”
In South Sudan, for example, Valerie Guarnieri of the World Food Programme said the country was mired in civil war, the economy was in freefall, crime was rampant, travel was difficult, there were few functioning institutions and some five million people were in need of food assistance.
To function effectively under such conditions required Nims to assess the needs, ensure the safety of his team, find creative ways to deliver food, plan and manage the food distribution, and keep up with the day-to-day challenges. Nims was up to the task, Guarnieri said.
“Matt can see his way through what needs to be done and has a way of pulling people together, motivating teams who are far flung and working in difficult circumstances,” Guarnieri said. “He manages to connect with them, leverage the support they need and keep upbeat about it. He gives the sense that ‘we’re all in this together and we’re working for the same goals, so let’s figure it out and do it.’ ”
Before dealing with the food delivery logistics, Nims had to lay the groundwork within his own agency, the administration and Congress.
Early on, Nims and his team took advantage of USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network. This system analyzes data on climate, agriculture production, prices, trade and other factors to forecast food shortages six to 12 months in advance of a famine, helping decision-makers and relief agencies plan for food emergencies. Nims and his team used this data to predict the famine in the four countries, giving them a head start on planning for the delivery of aid.
As the crisis developed and with a new administration in office, Nims found himself without a confirmed USAID administrator, no permanent director of the Food for Peace program and his agency operating on short-term funding. Despite the uncertainty these factors created, he worked hard to make the case internally. He testified before Congress to inform lawmakers about the crisis at hand, and coordinated with the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations.
“Matt was largely responsible for convincing Congress that this was an unacceptable situation and the U.S. had to step up,” Jenkins said. “And it probably turned the tide.”
Facing budgetary constraints because of the short-term funding measures, Mutone-Smith said, “Matt challenged us to think outside the box and be creative about our problem-solving.”
“Because we were operating under continuing resolutions, we had to prioritize while we were getting money in small chunks during one of the biggest humanitarian years on record,” she said.
By the end of 2017, the declaration of famine was rolled back in South Sudan, and the other countries avoided full-fledged famine.
As a former Peace Corps volunteer and USAID worker in Indonesia, Guyana and Afghanistan, Nims brought a unique perspective to his role and sees his mission as quite simple. “We work to keep people alive. When there are hungry people out there, we try to feed them.”