The Sahel Does Not Have to be the Next Somalia

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February 15, 2012
Suraj K. Sazawal
Less than two weeks after the UN announced the famine in Somalia over, another massive crisis affecting upwards of 10 million people is looming on the continent. Early indicators point to food shortages across the Sahel region, with people at particularly high risk in Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and parts of Nigeria and Senegal. Several governments have already declared states of emergency and requested international assistance. Aid agencies are also calling for immediate action to avoid another humanitarian disaster in the region, but the worst drought in decades is not the only obstacle they face.
Just like Somalia, the Sahel region is home to a U.S. designated terrorist group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Current U.S. law prohibits contact with a designated terrorist group, and even inadvertent capture or use of humanitarian aid by AQIM members could result in significant jail time for aid workers. As a result of these laws, American charities are often caught in a holding pattern, unable to respond to the needs of the affected populations in a timely manner. “The humanitarian vacuum," the UN reports, "is being filled by AQIM and/or criminal elements who are reportedly providing services and humanitarian assistance in remote areas.” The terrorist group has been able to “develop recruitment and local support networks for gathering information, supplying arms and ammunition, and other logistics.” So rather than hurting the terrorist groups, U.S. laws are having the opposite effect.
Responding to the overwhelming need in Somalia, the U.S. Department of State announced in early August that it would not seek prosecution for aid groups that receive grants from the U.S. government or the UN for violating the law if they acted in good faith to reach victims of the famine. No specific details on the rule changes were made public and many aid groups who wished to respond to the crisis, especially those operating with privately donated funds, remain uncertain if they would be protected against criminal prosecutions.  
While the temporary easing of restrictions for some groups was welcome news, it illustrated gross inadequacies in the existing law. Fear of incidental benefits to some members of designated groups should not prevent the delivery of essential aid to civilians in need. For aid delivery to be effective and produce long-term solutions for people living in the Sahel region, humanitarian groups cannot be expected to wait and see if the U.S. government will grant permission for operating in the area while millions of people pour into refugee camps in search of food and other basic necessities. Instead, common sense reforms to the laws would allow humanitarian and peacebuilding groups to operate, and at the same time improve America's image abroad through their good works. 
But what can be done for the millions of people in the Sahel region right now? A recent report by the Sahel Working Group, a coalition of development and humanitarian NGOs, including Christian Aid, Oxfam and World Vision UK, says the international aid community must engage with the regions’ governments and communities to address the root causes of food insecurity. In other words, to meet the needs of vulnerable populations today and beyond, more humanitarian space and access is required, not less.