U.S. moves to ease restrictions on aid for Somalia famine victims

Laura Rozen

The Obama administration announced plans to ease restrictions on aid going to famine-plagued areas in Somalia under the control of the militant Islamist group al-Shebaab. With some 12 million Somalis at risk of starvation, U.S. policymakers said that the humanitarian crisis trumps concerns that aid could get into the hands of al-Shebaab.

"Our number one goal is to save lives," a senior administration official told journalists on a call arranged by the State Department Tuesday. She also stressed that the United States has given full assurance to international humanitarian relief groups that they would not be prosecuted for delivering assistance to areas of Somalia under Shebaab control. The officials on the call all asked to speak anonymously. "What we are mainly concerned about is creating the flexibility in all possible ways so that assistance can be provided," the same source added.

In a separate statement circulated today, State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained that under the new policy, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) "are authorized to provide grants and contracts to fund non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian assistance in Somalia, including in areas under the de facto control of al-Shabaab."  NGOs would be "covered under the license from the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab," Toner said.

However, foreign-aid specialists said the new U.S. assurances have used vague and legally murky language 

"While this is a notable step in the right direction, it is not the same as actually lifting restrictions," Sarah Margon, an Africa expert at the Center for American Progress told The Envoy. "The vagueness associated with easing restrictions -- as opposed to lifting them -- means that, practically, the [humanitarian] organizations could still be liable for violating the law without clarity of what constitutes a violation. So while this is a step forward, the practical implications remain ill-defined."

Some 800,000 Somalis have already fled hunger to Kenya and Ethiopia as well as to northern Somalia.

Somalia is experiencing the worst famine in decades, the result of a two-year drought in the Horn of Africa that is the worst the region has seen for 60 ears. Aid and recovery efforts have suffered further under the breakdown of Somali's central government under two decades of civil war.