Terrorists, U.S. Policy Hinder Famine Aid To Somalia

The international community is struggling to respond to the famine in Somalia. U.S. officials say the terrorist group known as al-Shabaab has been preventing hungry Somalis from getting access to assistance. Some aid groups say U.S. policy in the region is also preventing them from doing life-saving work.

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Responding to the famine in Somalia is a challenge for donor nations, and you just heard a reason why. American officials say the al-Shabaab terrorist group makes some areas just too dangerous for aid workers. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, some aid groups say U.S. policy in the region is also preventing them from doing the kind of life-saving work they want to do.

MICHELLE KELEMEN: Obama administration officials say they are responding to the famine in Somalia and would do more if al-Shabaab would make good on new pledges to let humanitarian groups operate in the country. Al-Shabaab is an Islamist group that is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist. And Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, says the militants have made the famine far worse by their actions.

Ms. SUSAN RICE (Ambassador to the United Nations): The reason the aid hasn't gone in sufficient quantities into south and central Somalia is because al-Shabaab has prevented those most capable of delivering large quantities of aid from having access. And when they have had access, they've taxed them, harassed them, killed them, kidnapped them. So that's the problem.

KELEMEN: That is part of the problem, says Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, which represents 190 humanitarian organizations. Charny says U.S. sanctions on al-Shabaab also make matters more complicated, and the U.S. government just doesn't trust aid groups enough to make the right decisions.

Mr. JOEL CHARNY (InterAction): Yes, al-Shabaab has made life very difficult for our community in South Central, but it's not across the board and it's something that we can negotiate on a case-by-case basis, and that's all we're really asking to do.

KELEMEN: Private aid groups say they've heard clear warnings from the U.S. government that there are legal risks to working in Somalia if any aid gets to al-Shabaab.

Mr. CHARNY: The approach of the U.S. government, up to now, has been so absolutist. They're basically saying that the diversion of almost, literally, a cup of rice constitutes grounds to more of less shut down an entire aid program for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

KELEMEN: And that's essentially what has happened. The U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, says the U.S. has gone from the number one aid donor to Somalia to seven or eight, but he's hoping that will change.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia): No operation in Africa, particularly in Somalia, is risk-free. And I think what we're saying at this time is that donors have to accept and share some of the risks that organizations already working there are dealing with.

KELEMEN: Some U.N. agencies have managed to get supplies into Somalia, but Charny of InterAction says it will take time and trust to get a serious aid operation going. For now, aid groups will only be able to reach a fraction of those in need.

Mr. CHARNY: And then I think the hope would be that if trust is built back, those on the U.S. government side that aid isn't being diverted, and on the al-Shabaab side that, you know, we're not a part of some nefarious Western plot -as trust is built up, maybe those numbers would expand.

KELEMEN: For now, the U.S. is aiding mainly those Somalis who managed to get out to neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia. That's adding to tensions with those countries, which want donors to do more inside Somalia and slow refugee flows.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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