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Aid Groups Criticize US Response to East Africa Drought

A woman carrying her baby queues for food in a camp established by the Somali Transitional Federal Government for the internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
A woman carrying her baby queues for food in a camp established by the Somali Transitional Federal Government for the internally displaced people in Mogadishu.
Nico Colombant

While the U.S. government has increased its aid to help those affected by the devastating drought in the Horn of Africa, aid groups have criticized the slow response, as well as anti-terrorist laws which they say are impeding help to victims in the worst affected areas of Somalia.

Aid agencies have criticized the United States and other Western governments for failing to respond quickly enough to the more than 10 million people in need in drought-ravaged areas of the Horn of Africa.  The worsening drought, which forecasters have warned about for months, is being described as the worst in the region in six decades.

An official for the British-based aid agency Oxfam said there has been a breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act. Other aid activists have said that like for other hunger situations in Africa in recent years, substantial help is starting to arrive only after the disaster reaches a catastrophic scale.

Sarah Margon, with the U.S. group Center for American Progress, says major responses seem to have been triggered by a United Nations declaration that two regions in Somalia are now in a state of famine. "As the numbers come out, the word famine really starts to move people and it starts to peak the interest of the international community and the average citizen in a way that a humanitarian crisis unfortunately does not always get people active and engaged," she said.

The U.S. government announced it would give an additional $28 million in aid to Somalis, to help them both inside Somalia and in refugee camps in Kenya, bringing its aid total this year in food and emergency assistance in the Horn of Africa to $431 million.

But Jeremy Konyndyk, with the U.S.-based group Mercy Corps, says he would still like to see outside donor contributions go up. "While in absolute terms they are quite large, they are still not enough relative to the need and even they are considerably less than they were even if you go back to three years ago, when there was a lesser crisis in the Horn," he said.

Aid activists also say-long term aid efforts, including agricultural ones such as the current U.S. Feed the Future initiative, which are often touted as solutions to end hunger around the world, often get burdened in bureaucracy and lack the necessary follow through and resources to be effective.

Speaking recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, Raj Shah, said the focus was now once again on the short term. "The effort to bring agricultural development to a standard where we can eliminate food insecurity is a longer-term effort and we know that in the short term and in times of crises and calamity our ability to get food and nutrition to those who are vulnerable is going to be our first line of defense. We have seen this time and time again," he said.

On a recent visit to a Somali refugee camp in Kenya, the U.S. official blamed the al-Qaida linked Islamic insurgents al-Shabab for causing the worst effects of the drought. "A big part of why we have a famine in very specific parts of Somalia today is because of al-Shabab and ineffective governance in Somalia and a lack of humanitarian access in precisely those parts. It is no accident that the specific geographies that have been declared by the international community as an official famine are those areas where humanitarian actors from all parts of the world simply have not been allowed to have access to the population," he said.

Leaders of al-Shabab have said the declaration of famine in areas under their control is false propaganda meant to cause the displacement of populations.  

An al-Shabab spokesman said the militants will only allow increased aid from foreign agencies currently working in its strongholds, not from organizations it has banned since 2009.  But he did not specify which organizations.  The Somali government has condemned the al-Shabab policy.   

Aid activists say U.S. laws preventing government money from being spent on projects which could materially benefit a listed terrorist organization such as al-Shabab have also undermined the longer-term humanitarian response to the current two-year drought.

While the Treasury rules took effect in 2009, U.S. aid to Somalia, at $237 million in 2008, dropped to $99 million in 2009 and to $28 million in 2010.

U.S. based Horn of Africa expert J. Peter Pham says al-Shabab is not a monolithic organization and that there should be a loosening of the rules to be able to deal with some of the less radical militias. "I think the sanctions have a kind of a self-censoring incentive on aid organizations. So as a result aid is not flowing to where the people are. They are flowing to certain centers and people have to walk sometimes days to get there and not everyone unfortunately makes it," he said.

Aid activists have called for the issue to be taken up at the U.N. Security Council so that the urgent need to save lives in al-Shabab controlled areas becomes a main priority. A number of aid organizations have expressed safety concerns about working in areas the militants control.

U.S. officials have said they have had no contact with al-Shabab. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has also stressed the U.S. government will not allow food that is intended for victims to be siphoned off by an international terrorist group.

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