U.N. Pushes For Humanitarian Aid To Somalia

The U.N.'s top humanitarian official for Somalia has been urging the U.S. government to resume aid to Somalia, suspended because of U.S. fears that some money has fallen into the hands of al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-affiliated group. Mark Bowden argues that aid efforts are vital for Somalia's future and can be done without enriching Islamist rebels. The U.S. seems more focused on counterterrorism, especially in the wake of bombings in Uganda claimed by the Somali-based al-Shabab.

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A top U.N. official is urging the U.S. to increase the flow of aid to Somalia. It slowed to a trickle earlier this year out of concern that an al-Qaida affiliate based there was siphoning off supplies.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the official has a difficult pitch here in Washington.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Doing aid work in Somalia is not easy, but now there's a new complication: The al-Shabab militia, which the U.S. says has links to al-Qaida. The group recently claimed responsibility for deadly bombings in Uganda, and that has made the U.N. aid coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden's job, all the more difficult.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (U.N. Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator, Somalia): The fear is that Somalia's problem will spill over into the rest of the region. And that won't help Somalia or any sympathy towards meeting the needs of the Somali population.

My challenge as humanitarian coordinator is to try to get people to see that it's not the people of Somalia that are involved in these bombings, and that they still deserve assistance.

KELEMEN: In an interview, Bowden argues that it is still possible to do aid programs in Somalia, even though the U.N.'s World Food Programme had to suspend its work in southern Somalia where the al-Shabab is active.

Mr. BOWDEN: One of the very interesting things about Somalia is that even in the rebel-held areas, the U.N. agencies - UNICEF and WHO - are able to undertake major mass vaccination campaigns. And it's one of the countries that has still managed to stay polio-free, despite polio coming back in some other parts of Africa itself.

KELEMEN: Bowden says U.N. agencies are looking after 1.2 million internally displaced Somalis in a country that's been mired in violence since Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991.

The U.N. is currently facing 50 percent funding shortfalls in many areas because donors, like the U.S., have suspended some of their programs, worried that funds are being diverted to the al-Shabab militia.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley made clear today that the U.N. still needs to do more to reassure Americans that their taxpayer dollars are only helping those in need.

Assistant Secretary P.J. CROWLEY (U.S. Department of State): We continue to work with the U.N. on our concerns about security of the people who are making these deliveries and also to ensure that there's transparency and accountability, so that the assistance that we're providing does not, in any way, benefit, you know, violent groups like al-Shabab.

Those concerns are being discussed, but, you know, at the present time, they are still suspended.

KELEMEN: The U.N.'s Mark Bowden says he's been encouraged by what he's hearing in meetings with State Department and White House officials, though. He says the U.S. has always been one of the biggest donors to Somalia, and cutting off aid now would only aggravate the conflict.

Mr. BOWDEN: And I think that will be the biggest tragedy for Somalia, for people who've gone through 18 years of war - who are trying themselves to find ways out of it - to be cut off from the rest of the world and be denied their real right to assistance and help when they need it, would be a fatal blow to Somalia.

KELEMEN: But with the U.S. focused more on counterterrorism efforts against the al-Shabab in Somalia, some U.N. officials fear the humanitarian programs might have to continue to take a backseat.

While the Obama administration is scaling back humanitarian aid, it is considering doing more to help a U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia. That word came this week from the head of the U.S. Africa Command, William Ward.

General WILLIAM WARD (Commander, U.S. Africa Command): We are working very closely with their logistics, their training, their transportation, information, that they would use to be more effective in what they do. And we continue looking to ways based on what they ask us to enhance those efforts, and we would certainly see that continuing.

KELEMEN: The Army general says those are conversations he was having well before the bombings in Uganda earlier this month that have been blamed on the al-Shabab.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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