A drastic reduction in humanitarian assistance, widespread conflict and drought combined to make the 2011 famine in Somalia the most deadly in the past 25 years, a May 2013 study finds. Commissioned by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSnet), the study estimates that between October 2010 and April 2012, nearly five percent of the region's population and 10 percent of its children died because of severe food shortages. It also noted “that limited access to most of the affected population, resulting from widespread insecurity and operating restrictions imposed by several relief agencies, was a major constraint.” [p. 5] The presence of al-Shabab, a group on the U.S. terrorist list, in famine affected areas made legal restrictions an issue for aid groups.
Before the first government to be internationally recognized in two decades came into power in early 2013, Somalia had been a country without an effective government since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Since then, two decades of conflict, severe weather, and the lack of basic services and infrastructure have contributed to major food shortages for almost half of the country’s ten million people. Amidst the rampant insecurity and shortages, humanitarian efforts were further complicated by U.S. restrictions that prohibited aid delivery to the nearly two million civilians living in areas of the country controlled by al-Shabaab, a militant group that operates in southern Somalia, during the 2011 famine.
On Sept. 26, 2011 the Department of Treasury issued a “General License” that permits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide services in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited under Executive Order 13582, signed by President Barack Obama on Aug. 17, 2011. It blocks assets of the Syrian government that are located in the U.S. and prohibits a wide range of financial and trade transactions, including humanitarian aid. The General License lists specific NGO activities that are permitted without the need to go through Treasury's lengthy Specific License process.
The Charity & Security Network has sent letters to leaders in the Senate and House calling for hearings to determine how U.S. law contributed to the most deadly famine in the past 25 years by restricting humanitarian assistance during the 2010-2012 crisis in Somalia. A new study by USAID and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization found a drastic reduction in humanitarian assistance, combined with widespread conflict and drought, contributed to a death rate much higher than previously known.
Congress should investigate how U.S. law restricted humanitarian assistance to the people of Somalia, especially children, who made up 52 percent of all fatalities. It must also look at how the licensing process at the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control failed to effectively work with U.S. charities that wanted to conduct humanitarian operations in south and central Somalia, the areas hardest hit by the crisis, but were unable due to concerns of violating U.S. law.
National security measures in the U.S. negatively impact the speed and mobility of humanitarian relief in the wake of disasters. Deadly Combination: Disaster, Conflict and the U.S. Material Support Law by the Charity & Security Network considers two cases: The 2011 famine in Somalia and the summer 2010 floods in Pakistan. In both cases, by giving priority to military objective, the U.S. impaired effective aid delivery by humanitarian organizations, exacerbating the hardship caused by the disasters.
The politicization of disaster response in conflict zones obstructs timely and effective aid delivery and also jeopardizes the safety of aid workers. The current U.S. government response to disasters occurring alongside terrorist organizations is, at best, a 'wink and nod' gesture that allows for limited access for humanitarian groups (and no legal protections) and, at worst, a blanket ban on any humanitarian operation.