DADAAB, Aug 9 – Watching the wife of the US vice-president touring the world’s biggest refugee camp for famine-hit 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 onto 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 today 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 squatting waiting for food and water.
What is necessary about this duet between the media and the aid world is finding 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 in Haiti, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean after the tsunami.
A little over half of the GBP1.5 billion needed for the Horn of Africa famine and drought has been raised.
To coincide with the Second Lady’s visit, President Obama was yesterday expected to announce a fresh injection of £60 million of US aid for the crisis.
Mrs Biden said she was here to “raise awareness” among ordinary Americans of the “dire situation” of the famine and drought now 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 onto American television channels, which have been slower to report on the crisis than in other countries.
News programmes filled with shots of refugees with Mrs Biden, a full-time college teacher with no previous experience of international aid, would “catalyse Americans’ responses to the famine”, one Washington staffer said.
But for overstretched aid agencies and the refugees waiting for help, it was not immediately clear how yesterday’s whirlwind visit would make a difference.
“It is getting ridiculous, how much time we have to spend dealing with this stuff,” said another senior humanitarian official. “This is twice the size of any delegation we’ve had so far.”
It took two full days to prepare for the US visit yesterday.
Advance teams of special forces troops and secret service agents demanded full dress rehearsals and extended security sweeps.
Two US Army Hercules C-130 aircraft were flown in – one as a backup in case of technical hitches – to transfer the Americans to Dadaab from their overnight flight from Washington. They would fly home the same day.
Refugees at the reception centre, including Fatuma Adem, the mother with four children filmed talking with Mrs Biden, were readied in advance. Others stood watching bemused at the scrum of foreigners.
“I don’t know who she is. I just hope she can help my family,” Mrs Adem said after meeting the Second Lady.
Bill Frist, the former Senate majority leader, who accompanied Mrs Biden, was candid that the reason for the trip was to use media coverage “to reach a million people that would otherwise not be reached”.
As the convoy prepared to load up and speed back to the waiting Hercules, the senior aid worker sighed and said, “maybe I can have my camp back now”.
(This story was first published on The Telegraph)