Our guest blogger is Sarah Margon, associate director for Sustainable Security at the Center for American Progress.
The Washington Post ran a story today titled, “Somalis Flee Famine along ‘road of death,’” which illustrates the perilous journey thousands of Somalis are making to escape the worst famine in a generation. While running this front page story in a major American media outlet is a significant step in the right direction, U.S. reporting on the crisis lags far behind the rest of the world, particularly that in the European Union. In particular, the Post’s story today omitted a crucial detail: U.S. law is preventing much needed aid to getting to famine-stricken areas in the Horn of Africa.
The crisis on the Horn — and in particular the parts of Somalia that are officially in famine –– is the result of the worst drought in at least a generation. But it has also been caused by the protracted conflict related to the 1991 collapse of Somalia’s ruthless Siad Barre regime. The ongoing violence is now perpetrated in large part by a brutal armed group, al-Shebaab, which was designated in 2008 as a terrorist group and has ties to al Qaeda. Al-Shebaab has wreaked havoc throughout Somalia and created one of the most challenging environments for aid groups to operate. They have regularly harassed and targeted relief groups and killed more than 40 western aid workers. In 2009, al-Shebaab also banned international aid agencies from operating. The group recently lifted this ban only to reverse course shortly thereafter while also claiming that the U.N. had exaggerated the severity of the crisis.
Al-Shebaab’s brutality shows little signs of abating. In order to save the millions of lives that hang in the balance, al-Shebaab needs to acknowledge the severity of the crisis, stop denying aid to dying people and allow aid groups to have unfettered access to those who need assistance.
But here’s where the other part of the story comes into play.
The United States has traditionally been one of the leading donors throughout the region, providing hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency aid on an annual basis to Somalia alone. Given the severity of the current crisis and likelihood of it worsening, the Obama administration also needs to take expedited steps to address the legal road blocks U.S.-funded relief groups are facing. If that doesn’t happen, they can’t get up and running again. As I noted on ThinkProgress last week, many U.S. funded humanitarian organizations are eager to return to Somalia and restart programs they’ve had to abandon. As for now, however, they are stuck in 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 — remain firmly in place.
Members of Congress have started to express concern about these restrictions and have sent inquiries to the administration asking questions about how they can be swiftly addressed to help save lives. But the mainstream U.S. media also needs to look at the full scope of complexities associated with relief operations and do a better job of telling the whole story. Until these restrictions are either removed, or a waiver process is created, some of the most capable relief groups may be stuck waiting in the wings. And that means hundreds of thousands of people in need of assistance could be waiting for naught.