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Senate Panel Examines US Aid Efforts to Famine Victims in Horn of Africa

Malnourished children from southern Somalia on a bed at Bandar hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 1, 2011
Malnourished children from southern Somalia on a bed at Bandar hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 1, 2011
Cindy Saine

A U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee held a hearing Wednesday to examine ways to respond to the worst drought and famine in the Horn of Africa in 60 years.  As Experts and lawmakers welcomed an announcement by the State Department that the United States is easing anti-terrorism financial sanctions against the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab to increase the flow of humanitarian aid to the region.

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Somalia is at the center of the drought and famine crisis.  The United Nations says more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of food aid.  And the world body has declared a famine in three new areas of Somalia.

Experts testifying at the African Affairs Subcommittee hearing said it is hard to fathom the scope of the crisis, which is spreading throughout the Horn of Africa.

Nancy Lindborg is with the U.S. Agency for International Development:

“We estimate that in the last 90 days, 29,000 Somali children have died," said Lindborg. "This is nearly four percent of the children in southern Somalia.”

Relief group leaders testifying at the hearing said more money for food aid is desperately needed from private individuals and governments, and they encouraged President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to encourage people to give to those in need in Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa.

One of the biggest obstacles to providing aid to Somalia has been violent action by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabaab, which has dictated which aid groups are allowed in and demanded fees from relief groups trying to deliver food and water to those in need.  Sixty percent of those needing supplies in Somalia are in al-Shabaab-controlled territory.

The crisis has forced many Somalis to flee to neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or for areas of Somalia controlled by the government, where they can receive food aid.  But senior U.S. government officials and private experts told the panel that al-Shabaab is holding people against their will, preventing them from fleeing to areas where they can get food.

Donald Yamamoto is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department:

“Right now as an example, if you see the internally-displaced people right now, you are having about 100,000 or so south of Mogadishu, you are having at a rate of 1,000 a day going into those areas, you have al-Shabaab troops and shooters going into the areas and targeting refugees," said Yamamoto.

Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council research group agreed that al-Shabaab is partly responsible for the famine:

“I have reports from sources in the last 24 hours of at least three holding areas in lower Shabelle, where al-Shabaab forces are either using force or the threat there of to keep displaced people from leaving the territory and finding help," said Pham.

Pham said al-Shabaab draws much of its funding from cutting down trees to produce charcoal, which it then exports to the Persian Gulf.  This worsens the desertification problem.  Asked why the terrorist group is holding Somalis and preventing them from fleeing, Pham said its leaders might be speculating that where there are starving people, aid will eventually come, and that they could get part of it.

The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that it is easing anti-terrorist financial sanctions against al-Shabaab to increase the flow of humanitarian aid.  Donald Yamamoto said that as long as relief groups engage in a “good faith” effort to ensure that aid goes to the needy and not to terrorists, relief groups will not have to worry about prosecution under Treasury Department regulations.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing agreed that concerns about funds being extorted by al-Shabaab are overshadowed by the need to prevent massive famine and deaths.

Republican Senator Johnny Isakson put it this way:

“Well, I wanted to be quite clear," said Isakson. "I understand is important that the [Obama] administration and our country do everything they can to prohibit U.S. aid getting into terrorist hands, and that is one of the reasons for some of the restrictions.  But when you do reach a crisis point in a humanitarian problem like this, it seems like there ought to be expedited procedures, or else the people you are trying to help are going to be dead.”

Al-Shabaab was designated a terrorist group by the United States in 2008.  U.S. officials have expressed concern about the group recruiting Americans, particularly in Somali communities in the midwestern state of Minnesota.  Efforts by al-Shabaab to recruit and radicalize Muslim Americans were the focus of a recent hearing by the House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security.  

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