Militants A Hurdle In Somalia Famine Aid Efforts

Renee Montagne speaks with Kristalina Georgieva about the famine in Somalia and the difficulties of getting aid into the country. Georgieva is the European Union's humanitarian aid commissioner and is just back from Somalia.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In recent days, stunning images of starving Somalians have focused world attention on famine there affecting some 3.7 million people. The famine is in the south, which is controlled by the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab, and the group has kept aid workers out of the region.

Kristalina Georgieva is the European Union's commissioner who deals with humanitarian aid. She's just returned from a trip to Somalia, and joined us to share what she saw.

Ms. KRISTALINA GEORGIEVA (Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, European Union): Just two impressions from the trip. One is families walking 20 days to get to the border with Ethiopia. They want to go into a refugee camp. And what they're telling me is that they consider themselves fortunate, because they had the means to leave. One family said we are so lucky none of our kids died on the way to here, and they talk about their neighbors that lost three kids walking.

And then people that are getting some help in south Somalia. What works there is when the humanitarian community has been brave to stay, and they built relations with the local chiefs. So, the local chief participates in food distributions.

MONTAGNE: Now, this is the worst drought to hit Somalia in some six decades. But it's been greatly exacerbated by the political landscape. Tell us about that.

Ms. GEORGIEVA: The situation in Somalia is complex. There are parts of the country that are under the control of al-Shabaab. But al-Shabaab is also not the monolithical organization. It's like a dragon with many heads. And in some parts, al-Shabaab and the local chiefs together practically stop any access for humanitarian workers. In other parts, the local chiefs are saying enough is enough. We want help.

MONTAGNE: Why are those al-Shabaab leaders who are doing this, why are they driving away efforts to help Somalis in need?

Ms. GEORGIEVA: Well, the strongest driver there is the ideology this is a very strong militant Islamic movement, that some of the leadership really believes that the Westerners want to take over Somalia, and they are protecting the fabric of their society. But there are now many, including al-Shabaab leaders, that are seeing their communities dying, and they are much more open to allow help inside the country.

MONTAGNE: One issue in this famine has been that al-Shabaab is designated by the U.S. and the E.U. as a terrorist group. And as far as the U.S. is concerned, that's complicated aid efforts because the law is that you cannot send aid to what would amount to the group, if the group is in control of where the famine is. But just yesterday, President Obama moved to lift restrictions on that aid. What impact might that have?

Ms. GEORGIEVA: I very much welcome this decision. The implication is that organizations would be more forthcoming to use U.S. assistance to operate inside Somalia, because nobody can guarantee that 100 percent assistance provided does not at all get into al-Shabaab hands.

MONTAGNE: Is enough aid getting into the country?

Ms. GEORGIEVA: There is help, and it is not enough. What we are facing in Somalia is not only the restrictions and limited number of people available. We are talking about a country where development pretty much stopped for big parts of it. So roads are a problem. The local hospitals are in terrible shape. So we are paying a big price of Somalia being allowed to turn into a failed state.

But, on a more positive note, there are some encouraging data of people being reached, and we are talking about close to a million Somalis are being reached, but a million against 3.7 million Somalis at risk.

MONTAGNE: Kristalina Georgieva is the European Union's commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. GEORGIEVA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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