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The Patriot Act and Aid: Focus on Somalia

July 15, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at PND. In his last post, he wrote about the role of philanthropy in the Arab world's transition to democracy.)

Somalia_Food_Crisis With a severe drought once again visiting misery on the Horn of Africa, international NGOs and aid agencies are pouring into southern Somalia to provide food aid and other assistance in an attempt to blunt the looming humanitarian crisis. Due to a provision in the Patriot Act banning all "material support" for designated terrorist groups, organizations from the United States will not be among them.

Southern Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group classified as a terrorist organization by many Western countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Until last week, the group did not allow foreign aid organizations to operate in areas under its control, and it has a long history of committing violence against foreign relief workers and locals who partner with them. There's no questioning the group's grisly record of terrorism.

Still, after nearly twenty years of bloody civil war, Somalia is one of the most neglected and war-torn countries in the world, and its people desperately need outside help. It speaks volumes about the severity of the situation that refugees seeking food aid are leaving rural areas in droves for Mogadishu -- quite possibly the most dangerous city on earth. Since October, the U.S. has contributed $368 million in emergency relief to other countries in the region, so our inaction is not a result of indifference. It should also be acknowledged that Americans give generously to organizations like UNICEF, which recently resumed operations in southern Somalia.

The issue is not so much that the Patriot Act is leading to a bad policy decision, it's that it is preventing any debate from taking place at all. Might al-Shabaab appropriate and hoard any food aid that is delivered to the stricken region? Would this free up resources for the group to conduct military operations (Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, thinks it almost certainly would)? What are the chances that al-Shabaab, which historically has been engaged in a struggle to overthrow the Somali government, will try to launch transnational operations against Western interests? Does doing the right thing in this situation from a humanitarian perspective outweigh the potential risks? It's a complicated problem that warrants careful consideration. But, thanks to the Patriot Act, these and other important questions will never even be considered by policy makers in Washington.

USAID deputy administrator Donald Steinberg recently reaffirmed the government's position on the issue. "We cannot provide anything that is interpreted as material support for a group that we consider to be a terrorist organization," Steinberg told AFP. USAID has pledged $5 million to help Somali refugees who cross into neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, but it has firmly ruled out aid for Somalia itself -- in part, no doubt, because the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision handed down last year, ruled that the "material support" clause of the Patriot Act included such seemingly innocuous activities as working with designated terrorist groups to teach them how to use peaceful means to achieve their political goals.

Unfortunately, the problematic nature of the act isn't limited to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Somalia. Fear of repercussions or even prosecution has caused many NGOs and foundations to think twice about operating in some of the world's neediest regions. Denying "material support" to terrorist organizations is an admirable goal, but the act's sweeping approach to the problem of terrorism prevents many worthwhile projects from ever being attempted.

What do you think? Is the injunction of the Patriot Act in the case of al-Shabaab and the unfolding crisis in Somalia appropriate given the risks involved? Or should the U.S. government find a way to debate the material support clause and perhaps relax it in this situation? Use the comments section below to share your thoughts.

(Photo credit: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps)

-- Nick Scott

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