Our guest blogger is Sarah Margon, associate director for Sustainable Security at the Center for American Progress.
With more than 10.7 million people in desperate need of food assistance across the Horn of Africa, the U.N. is expected to officially declare a famine in parts of Somalia tomorrow. The last time a major famine was declared in the region was 1984-85, when severe drought killed more than 1 million people in Ethiopia.
Pervasive insecurity and cumbersome legal restrictions created to keep U.S. taxpayer dollars from falling into the hands of al-Shabaab, the armed al Qaeda-linked group that controls much of southern Somalia, has made humanitarian access difficult for many aid agencies. As a result, nearly 3 million people throughout southern Somalia are now in need of assistance. In addition, and due in part to the complexities of operating in a terrorist-controlled area, there is a $1 billion funding shortage.
Last week, in a shift that indicates the severity of the humanitarian crisis, al-Shabaab publicly reversed its 2009 ban on international assistance. At a press conference in the embattled Somali capital, a spokesman noted:
“Whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims, [if] their intention is only to assist those suffering, [international aid groups] can contact the committee which will give them access to the drought-hit areas. We are standing by to provide any assistance they need if their exact desire is helping the drought affected people. Anyone with no hidden agenda will be assisted…and those who intend to harm our people will be prevented to do so.”
Immediately after the announcement, the U.N. began delivering food and medicine to civilians in al-Shabaab territory. To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent an important signal by pledging to “test the willingness” of al-Shabaab and re-start programs. The crisis, however, is urgent and many obstacles remain.
For their part, many U.S. governement funded humanitarian groups are eager to return to Somalia and restart programs they’ve had to abandon. As for now, however, these groups are stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The restrictions against working in Somalia — whether the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) restrictions or Executive Order 13224 — are still firmly in place.
Given the urgency of the crisis, restarting aid programs will require some quick work by the interagency. The legal obstacles for aid dispersal that are currently in place can be addressed by either removing OFAC restrictions or creating a waiver process that enables relief agencies to apply for exemptions. Both steps will likely encounter bureaucratic hurdles that challenge the Secretary’s stated commitment. So the sooner a path forward can be agreed, the sooner the aid groups can get their programs legally up and running.