Gayle Smith (left) is a special assistant to the President of the United States and Senior Director for Development and Democracy at the U.S. National Security Council. In April, President Obama nominated Smith to run the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Alex de Waal (right) is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

Dear Gayle,

We have known one another for almost thirty years, and been shaped by the same experiences of war and famine in Africa. We have shared the same commitment to the people of Africa, especially the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes, in their times of greatest need. Allow me to contribute a few thoughts now that you are poised to become Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID.

I welcome your appointment. In the interests of understanding the extraordinary dilemmas that you will face in responding to humanitarian emergencies, I am sharing some of my own reflections on some key issues, knowing that you have struggled with same questions, and recognizing that there are rarely simple and right answers.

It will be great to have someone who has your experience in this job. No one should question your credentials. In the 1980s, working for the cross-border relief efforts in Tigray and Eritrea, you saw hunger—and worked to alleviate it—on par with any professional relief worker in modern times. Providing aid to the civilians of those areas, in the midst of war and embargo, was a humanitarian effort unmatched in its dedication, personal hard work and risk. And, for those who read history backwards and forget the harsh realities of the 1980s, it was a lonely and unrecognized path, requiring both physical and moral courage. We now see the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front as the controlling political power in Ethiopia, and its late leader, Meles Zenawi, as the dominant figure in that country’s modern history. But in the mid-1980s, they were a virtually unrecognized guerrilla front, fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds. Their adversary was the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, infamous for the Red Terror in which his agents murdered tens of thousands of young Ethiopians, and for counter-population warfare that involved mass atrocities and unleashed famine. When the EPRDF took power in 1991, most predicted that Ethiopia would collapse. You are among a very small group who knew the new leadership, and were confident that they could pull that country back from the precipice. You were right.

At USAID there’s one simple thing you can commit to: no famine.

Those guerrillas we knew in the mountains of northern Ethiopia—ardent and idealistic—have been in power for almost a quarter of a century. Their record is better than many former liberators—especially on development and corruption—but they still possess many of the characteristics of a military organization. Above all, they don’t share power, don’t like free speech, and are almost impervious to advice, let alone criticism. No one in the Obama Administration commands their respect like you do: please use that influence to promote human rights and democratization.

I know you had enormous respect for Meles Zenawi. Remember his central argument when he wrote Ethiopia’s national security doctrine: poverty was the main threat. It followed that development and democracy were the central planks of national security—the size and posture of the army were entirely secondary to those.

This is my bigger point. Under the Obama Administration, foreign policy has been driven by national security and concern over domestic opinion polls. Humanitarian issues, democratization, development, and resolving armed conflicts get on the agenda only when the Pentagon and CIA have had their say. That is glaringly obvious in Africa and the Middle East. You more than anyone should know that a security policy that relies overwhelmingly on military and intelligence instruments and has no wider economic and political strategy is doomed to fail, and to wreak havoc in doing so.

At USAID there’s one simple thing you can commit to, and a few more difficult things you can try. The simple thing is to pledge no famine on your watch. This should be a straightforward, non-partisan commitment.

Four years ago, perhaps 250,000 people—most of them children—died of hunger and disease in Somalia. It was the kind of famine we are familiar with: a lethal combination of crop failure (due to drought), high food prices (due to breakdown of markets), war (an African coalition against the Islamist militants of Al-Shabaab), and the abusive and extractive policies of Al-Shabaab themselves. But while the famine intensified, the United States scaled back its aid. The fear was that aid would get into the hands of the militants. And U.S. counter-terror legislation meant that any independent humanitarian agency trying to do the same thing risked being prosecuted for directly or indirectly supporting terror. The Administration reversed course, provided aid and relaxed its restrictions—but too late.

That famine is a dark stain on America’s moral standing and reputation. It should never have been allowed to happen. Yes, it’s true: if you provide famine relief to civilians in Al-Shabaab’s areas, you are likely to feed Al-Shabaab’s fighters too. But whatever tactical losses that incurs—and it’s almost unheard of for a rebel movement or rogue regime to be starved into submission—are insignificant compared to the larger gains of stopping starvation. And so it proved in Somalia, as it did in North Korea in the 1990s, when some Washington pundits seriously proposed starving the North Koreans into submission, and fortunately did not prevail.

If famine threatens, USAID should be providing food for Yemenis, North Koreans—and, yes, civilians under the control of the Islamic State as well. To tolerate famine from political calculus is both ethically wrong and politically shortsighted. That’s a line that should never be crossed.

There’s a host of more difficult calls to make. Humanitarian aid is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to do. Aid cannot substitute for political action and neither can food and medicine provide livelihoods and jobs. If emergency aid is our only response, poured into a political vacuum it will end up feeding a criminalized war economy.

This is what is happening in Syria today.  Emergency aid is a gesture of despair: a last resort and an attempt to be seen doing something, anything, in response to the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Because the aid response isn’t one of the strategic priorities, it is straitjacketed by the war on terror. As a result it is orphaned: neither an authentic humanitarian operation, nor is it contributing to a solution to the conflict.

The principles of neutrality and impartiality, that have informed humanitarianism since the founding of the Red Cross 150 years ago, are as valid in Syria as anywhere else. They are essential for getting relief across the battlefront to every besieged enclave. As in so many prior wars, there are places aid workers cannot go, because they are too dangerous, because local armed groups refuse to respect them, or because food and medicine are part of local profiteering rackets. Also, as in Somalia, counter-terror legislation has a chilling effect on humanitarian operations. It shackles the established international agencies from any dealings with groups labeled as “terrorists.” It denies aid—not just emergency relief but also support for livelihoods and local governance—to areas where the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra have any presence at all, making it far harder for moderate leaders in those places to resist the extremists. The administration’s policy also divides and antagonizes the many Muslim individuals and organizations who are trying to respond—for example, diaspora Syrians who want to send assistance back home may find themselves harassed, or their bank accounts frozen. In Syria, the right thing to do—morally and politically—is to uphold fundamental humanitarian principle.

During the Russian famine of 1921–23, Herbert Hoover oversaw the world’s largest relief operation, feeding many citizens of the Soviet Union. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt reluctantly permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross to aid Greek civilians under Nazi occupation, through neutral Turkey. Humanitarians, including Hoover and Oxfam, argued that the starvation of Greeks was wrong, and that the Allies gained no significant military advantage through the blockade and resulting famine—and history has judged them favorably.

If the United States will not itself provide humanitarian aid to all Syrians, irrespective of the political affiliations of their political authorities, it should at least allow humanitarian assistance by neutral organizations to try to reach all.

Beyond the basic task of trying to get life-saving supplies everywhere, there is the challenge of aligning relief with political strategy. This means reforming both, including building peace by involving civic groups that have established local administrations and negotiated local ceasefires. Also, if Turkey were to make sure its border crossings were controlled by civilian authorities and not armed groups, it would be a big step to making humanitarian aid a tool for local peace, not warlord rule.

Dear Gayle, USAID in general—and you in particular—have unique influence in Africa. Yet the Obama Administration has no discernible Africa strategy, except counter-terrorism and challenging China. Of course, U.S. policy shouldn’t sideline African leadership: Africans, not Americans, should be charting the future of the continent. But there are important principles at stake, and a few key issues on which the United States can take lead.

South Sudan will surely be at the top of your list. Feeding the hungry in South Sudan in the middle of their war will not be easy, but the decision to try is not politically difficult. The harder part is ending the war. We are both painfully aware of how this disaster came about: in the 1990s, we shared our dismay at the dictatorial practices of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army and feared what would happen if its leaders came to power without reform—which is indeed what happened.

The appalling record of the South Sudanese in government is a dismal illustration of the truism that the hardest tasks are reforming our friends, not defeating our enemies. The standard formula for ending civil war—power sharing among the political elite—is not working. The Africans have taken the diplomatic lead in organizing the negotiations, and that’s how it should be. They are now stuck, and looking for a new formula. Instead of a new configuration of the existing elite—putting old wine in new bottles—what’s needed is peacemaking linked to justice and democracy.

There are some tasks for which U.S. leadership is crucial. You can begin with tracing the vast amounts of money spirited out of the country by its kleptocratic leaders. South Sudan is the richest poor country in Africa: the elites prosper while the poor starve. At the moment, the agenda is to impose individual sanctions on people responsible for war crimes or obstructing the peace process—that should be expanded to include anyone who has acquired wealth by corrupt means. This is the right thing to do—an integral part of seeking justice for crimes committed. It will also send a clear signal that whatever government is set up for South Sudan, it won’t be able to go back to business as usual—no return to stealing the country’s wealth for personal enrichment.

Rwanda is another priority. Like you, I was quick to express utter horror at the depths of depravity of the Rwandese genocide, and to believe that, in the wake of that catastrophe, we needed to extend immediate and generous assistance to the Rwandese. The Rwandese Patriotic Front, led by Paul Kagame, fully deserved of our solidarity when they were facing down the genocidal Hutu Power regime, and then trying to build government in a shattered land. Twenty years on, it is easy to forget just how little assistance and understanding was extended to the post-genocide rulers of Rwanda during their first year power. Rwanda received next to nothing while the génocidaires of the former Hutu Power regime benefited from a vast refugee aid program, which enabled them to regroup in refugee camps just over the border in what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).

For my part, I not only argued that the new RPF regime needed support, but also that, in view of the failure of international policy to remove the Hutu Power army and militia from the camps in Zaire, we could not object to the RPF doing that job itself. I was wrong. The RPF troops did not stop at creating a cordon sanitaire on their borders: they went as far as Kinshasa to install a new government, plunging Congo into a devastating war. It also put Rwanda on a perpetual war footing.

No doubt, President Kagame has engineered remarkable economic development. But Rwanda is a police state ruled by fear. This is not only wrong, but also dangerous. There are few Americans who have the authority to speak frankly on this. Gayle, you are one of them: please do so.

Gayle, you have a very full inbox. I hope you are confirmed swiftly and can get down to business. You not only have hard problems to solve in a few short months, but principles to uphold. Affirming fundamental humanitarian principles at the heart of government may be your greatest legacy.

Images: ENOUGH ProjectWorld Peace Foundation. Alex de Waal's edited book, Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism, is out this month from Zed Books.