Hunger Without Borders and Discriminatory Aid Policies

Printer-friendlyPrinter-friendly EmailEmail
October 17, 2011
Kay Guinane

Food insecurity is a growing problems in the world, with the famine in the Horn of Africa being the most recent and tragic example. In July 2008 the United Nations created a High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, noting that “nearly a billion of the world’s poor and vulnerable people – 15% of our total population – are in danger because they cannot be sure of getting the food that children and adults need for healthy and productive lives.” 

People living in poor countries and conflict zones are particularly vulnerable. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in September 2011, “The magnitude of this problem is most obvious today in the Horn of Africa. 13.5 million people there desperately need food to survive. Without proper nutrition the children and pregnant mothers will suffer irreversible damage." 

International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and donors are responding to this crisis as best as they can. However, rules governing what aid can be delivered to what geographical area has more to do with U.S. national security and foreign policy goals than it does with need. While these rules were not drafted with the intent of discriminating against hungry people trapped in conflict zones, they have that effect.
U.S. sanctions programs that list terrorist organizations and impose embargoes on countries the President deems to be national security threats treat humanitarian aid differently. For example Syria was put on the list of sanctioned countries in August 2011. On Sept. 26, 2011 Treasury issued a General License for NGOs to operate humanitarian aid, development and democracy building programs. The license includes "activities to support humanitarian projects to meet basic human needs in Syria, including, but not limited to, drought relief, assistance to refugees, internally displaced persons, and conflict victims, food and medicine distribution, and the provision of health services; " and more. 
This is in stark contrast to Somalia, where the terrorist group al-Shabaab controls substantial territory.  Famine relief efforts are hampered by the prohibition on material support, which makes it illegal for a U.S. NGO to talk to al-Shabaab about logistical arrangements to access starving non-combatants. Although the State and Treasury Departments have granted an "expanded license" to allow NGOs that get funds from USAID to operate there, privately funded programs still face the threat of criminal sanctions and being shut down if the government determines any of their aid is diverted to al-Shabaab, even if only incidentally or involuntarily. InterAction, an association of NGOs, has asked Treasury to issue a General License that would allow all aid groups to operating in good faith to have the same protection as USAID grantees. That was in August, and two months later, as the famine impacts grow, there is still no response. 
What is the difference between a starving child in Somalia and Syria? They are equally hungry, and the food situation in Somalia appears to be much worse than in Syria. The answer to the question is: politics, foreign policy and bureaucratic gridlock. But these factors are not proper criteria for making decisions about life saving humanitarian aid. International humanitarian law and human rights law both demand that aid determinations must be based on need alone. The politics of the governing forces, whether it is a militant group like al-Shabaab or a repressive government like that in Syria, are expressly forbidden as criteria for determining aid eligibility. (See Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
It is time for the administration to stop discriminating against hungry and sick people on the basis of national security and foreign policy positions. This is not a balancing test, pitting the starving in Somalia against the right of the American people to be free from terrorist attack. All of our human rights count, and it is only be respecting them for Somalis that we can expect others to respect them for us. 
For more information see the UN Global Food Security Crisis website.