As the world raises money to support relief work in parts of East Africa affected by a famine and severe drought, a small, but important fact remains largely unknown: the American government is restricting the flow of humanitarian aid to central and southern Somalia, the most hard hit regions with the most need.
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Minnesota Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have written a letter to Hilary Clinton urging the State Department lift these restrictions. The letter reads in part,
The U.S. government’s expansion of the Office of Foreign Assets Control [OFAC] license should enable humanitarian organizations to partner with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to deliver aid and save lives in difficult conditions without being in conflict with U.S. laws and regulations.
As part of its war on terror, the American government has diligently tracked money from here to other parts of the world. In August, last year, two Minnesota women of Somali descent were arrested for allegedly supporting Somalia’s militia, al-Shabaab.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the cases in Minnesota, California and Alabama a “deadly [pipeline” of terrorist support.
But, were these isolated incidences? And did these warrant blanket aid restrictions to the region? At the time, the United Nations did not think so. While the famine was only declared a few months ago, the region was already experiencing a year-long dry season, a slow drought and a predictable famine.
Mark Bowden, the United Nations official in charge of humanitarian operations in Somalia, said the accusations of aid diversions to the Shabab were ”ungrounded.”
”What we are seeing is a politicization of humanitarian issues,” he said.
I asked the State Department to respond to these allegations. In an email exchange, a USAID official said,
In January 2010, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) suspended operations in southern Somalia because of threats and unacceptable conditions created by armed groups, in particular the anti-Western terrorist organization al-Shabaab. At that same time, the safety and security risks also caused a majority of internationally supported humanitarian programs to withdraw from Somalia. As humanitarian access was severely reduced, U.S. government assistance decreased correspondingly for the last three-quarters of FY 10 and FY 11. The United States and the international community continue to look for ways to provide assistance to those in Somalia who need assistance, and we call on all parties to allow unimpeded humanitarian access to all those in need. It is no coincidence that the areas in southern Somalia that now meet the threshold for famine are the very same areas the international aid community has been unable to access because of insecurity created by armed groups like al Shabaab.
With current OFAC restrictions, an aid agency would face persecution if terrorist groups like al Shabaab extort them for taxes or tolls. A couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of August, the US State Department announced that it was easing aid restrictions and would exempt specific humanitarian aid agencies This lax in restriction only protects some of the large aid organizations like the United Nations, the World Food Program and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). A coalition of non-profits, Inter Action, is challenging the State department asking that that an exception be made considering the potential loss of life.