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As Humanitarian Crisis in Somalia Intensifies, U.S. Relaxes Aid Policy

July 21, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at PND. In his last post, he wrote about the implications of the Patriot Act on U.S. disaster relief efforts in the Horn of Africa.)

HornofAfricaFamine_illus In a post last week, I criticized the Patriot Act's "material support" clause for rigidly preventing U.S. development agencies and NGOs from distributing food aid directly to the parts of southern Somalia under the control of Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab. Since then, the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa has intensified, the United Nations has declared a famine in parts of Somalia, and many have accused developed countries of not doing enough to help.

In a significant policy shift, our own government has pledged an additional $28 million for the region and indicated that the money could be used in parts of southern Somalia under the control of al-Shabaab if assurances are provided by the World Food Programme and other aid recipients that al-Shabaab will not benefit from the aid.

Realistically, it may be impossible for the UN or NGOs to provide such guarantees, but USAID deputy administrator Donald Steinberg told the BBC that the agency's goal was

not to play a game of "gotcha" with a UN agency or any other group that is brave enough to go in and provide that assistance. What we need is assurances from the World Food Programme and from other agencies, the United Nations or other agencies, both public and in the non-governmental sector, who are willing to go into Somalia who will tell us affirmatively that they are not being taxed by al-Shabaab, they are not being subjected to bribes from al-Shabaab, that they can operate unfettered.

This new flexibility in the face of an urgent humanitarian crisis is to be welcomed, and may even signal a policy shift with implications beyond the current situation in the Horn of Africa. For now though, the situation remains critical and more aid is badly needed. Here are some ways you can help:

We'll keep you apprised of developments in the region as we learn of them.

(Chart: Reuters)

-- Nick Scott

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Posted by David Jacobs  |   July 21, 2011 at 03:12 PM

It's an amazingly bad situation with no good answers, because even if al-Shabaab isn't directly "taxing" (read: stealing from) the relief agancies, they still benefit indirectly.

I just think it also needs to be noted that the cause of the problem really isn't the Patriot Act - no matter how poorly constructed one may think it is. The nature of the controlling regime is the problem.

Posted by Nick Scott  |   July 21, 2011 at 05:09 PM

Thanks for the comment David. I would argue that certain provisions of the Patriot Act make it difficult for foundations or NGOs to operate in conflict zones out of fear of inadvertently providing designated terrorist groups with "material support", but that is probably a side issue in this case.

There is no question that the problem is al-Shabaab and a weak Somali Transitional Federal Government that is unable to reassert control over the southern parts of the country. But given that reality, we have to weigh the benefits of deploying aid to the region against the risk of it directly or indirectly benefiting al-Shabaab.

Posted by Nick Scott  |   July 28, 2011 at 04:25 PM

Here's an interview with Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, that expands on that point:

KELEMEN: That is part of the problem, says Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, which represents 190 humanitarian organizations. Charny says U.S. sanctions on al-Shabaab also make matters more complicated, and the U.S. government just doesn't trust aid groups enough to make the right decisions.

Mr. JOEL CHARNY (InterAction): Yes, al-Shabaab has made life very difficult for our community in South Central, but it's not across the board and it's something that we can negotiate on a case-by-case basis, and that's all we're really asking to do.

KELEMEN: Private aid groups say they've heard clear warnings from the U.S. government that there are legal risks to working in Somalia if any aid gets to al-Shabaab.

Mr. CHARNY: The approach of the U.S. government, up to now, has been so absolutist. They're basically saying that the diversion of almost, literally, a cup of rice constitutes grounds to more of less shut down an entire aid program for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.


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