Senate Hearing Examines How Aid Delivery to Somalia Hampered by U.S. Law

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September 15, 2011
The U.S. should do more to expedite humanitarian aid to the two million people trapped in southern Somalia, said speakers at a Senate hearing on Aug. 3, 2011. Witnesses told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa that famine conditions in Somalia will continue, and that restrictions on aid need reformed to allow aid delivery during times of crisis. The hearing, Responding to Drought and Famine in the Horn of Africa, was held on the same day the State Department said USAID grantees (and not independent aid groups who do not receive funding from USAID) would likely not face sanctions for working in southern Somalia.  The Department of Justice has not made any public comments about the new policy.
Sen. John Isakson (R-GA) called for expediting the delivery of aid to save lives. “I understand is important that the [Obama] administration and our country do everything they can to prohibit U.S. aid getting into terrorist hands,” said Isakson. “But when you do reach a crisis point in a humanitarian problem like this, it seems like there ought to be expedited procedures, or else the people you are trying to help are going to be dead,” he added.
Jeremy Konyndyk, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Mercy Corps, said the “legal restrictions imposed under the Patriot Act and related law have thrown up significant roadblocks to the humanitarian response and impeded preparedness” in Somalia.  “I suspect that those who wrote the laws did not have this sort of outcome in mind.”
Konyndyk described the restrictions as “overly broad, allowing automatic humanitarian exemptions only for medical supplies and religious materials. Obtaining humanitarian exemptions for anything outside of those two categories typically requires a license that is only approved after a cumbersome and lengthy interagency process.” He said that groups wishing to obtain an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) license during the last two years have found the process “often politically difficult and massively time-consuming.”
The effects of these delays were evident before famine was declared in July. Konyndyk said after USAID raised concerns about aid being diverted in April 2009, “USAID stopped processing new humanitarian response grants to UN agencies and NGOs.  In the midst of a serious humanitarian crisis in much of the country, numerous U.S.-funded humanitarian response programs were suspended as grant agreements expired and could not be renewed.”
Konyndyk said he and other aid groups were “encouraged by the recent indications from the Administration that these restrictions have now been modified to allow greater support to relief efforts in the south.”  However, he raised “concerns about how the new arrangement will be implemented, particularly the fact that it only applies to programs that are wholly or partly funded by the US Government.” He recommended that “the protections now extended to USAID through their OFAC license be extended in full” to independent aid groups working in Somalia.
To avoid similar delays and red tape in the future, Konyndyk called on Congress to “re-examine the interplay between OFAC restrictions and humanitarian aid, and explore whether a more streamlined and responsive approach can be found.” He also suggested “expanding the list of exempted categories beyond medical supplies and religious materials, to also include assistance related to food, water, and shelter needs.” 
Donald Yamamoto, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with the Bureau of African Affairs, also spoke at the hearing. “Those most seriously affected by the current drought are the more than 2 million Somalis trapped in al-Shabaab-controlled areas in south central Somalia,” Yamamoto said. “As we seek to take advantage of any current openings to expand aid distribution, we are also working with our partners in the international community to counter al-Shabaab's ability to threaten our interests or continue to hold the Somali people hostage.”
Another speaker, Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Affairs at USAID, said, “A famine determination is never made lightly and reflects the truly dire circumstances facing the people of southern Somalia…we estimate that more than 29,000 children under five – nearly four percent of children -- have died in the last 90 days in southern Somalia.”