For the last several years, the story of U.S. humanitarian aid in war-torn Somalia has been more or less the same: Despite great need, the U nited States has restricted or delayed aid to the country over concerns that the assistance will benefit the al-Shabaab militant group that controls much of southern and central Somalia. The group was added to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2008, and aid levels have fallen drastically in the years since.
But with tens of thousands of Somalis dead and many more starving in the current famine, the U.S. stance appears to be softening.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced last month that the United States would direct an additional $28 million in aid for Somalia and Somali refugees in Kenya, adding to the more than $430 million in emergency assistance it has already provided to the region this year. And Obama administration officials told reporters today that the United States is relaxing its restrictions and has issued guidance in order to give aid groups working in Somalia confidence that they won't face prosecution for violating anti-terrorism sanctions.
Though the exact details are still unclear, the new guidance marks a shift in how the United States has handled aid to Somalia in recent years. Last April, the president issued an executive order prohibiting the provision of “funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of” al-Shabaab and affiliated individuals who the United States has sanctions against. And as recently as last month, NPR reported that the U.S. government had warned aid groups about the legal risks of working in Somalia—a warning negated by the new guidance.
After all, the current need is more acute than ever. The United Nations declared a famine in Somalia last month—something it hasn’t done in nearly two decades. By the U.N.’s count, tens of thousands of Somalis have escaped to refugee camps in Kenya or Ethiopia, with some so sick and malnourished that they simply go there to die.
Administration officials declined to explain the details of the new guidance but said it would “allow more flexibility to provide a wider range of aid to a larger number of areas in need.”
"We remain deeply concerned about al-Shabaab's support for terrorism and efforts to destabilize the Transitional Federal Government," State Department spokeswoman Hilary Renner told me. "We continue to work with our implementing partners to ensure our programs in Somalia are accountably managed and monitored."
Whether easing the rules actually eases the suffering is also dependent on cooperation from al-Shabaab, whose different factions have given mixed messages on whether aid workers are even allowed in the group’s territories. The group has kidnapped and killed aid workers in the past.
Al-Shabaab insurgents have thus far exacerbated the crisis by trying to stop starving Somalis from leaving areas under their control, the New York Times reported today. A spokesman for the group told the Times that the people were staying of their own volition and said that the U.N.’s declaration of famine was “an exaggeration.”
It’s still unclear which, if any, humanitarian groups currently have access to the al-Shabaab areas. The State Department has not provided such details, citing concerns about the safety of workers.