Washington - The Barack Obama administration promised Tuesday that the U.S. would not prosecute relief agencies for delivering aid to parts of Somalia controlled by the Islamist insurgent group al- Shabaab, despite concerns that unrestricted aid in the failed state would be diverted to the wrong hands.
"We have issued new guidance to allow more flexibility to provide a wider range of aid to a large number of areas in need," a senior administration official said during a conference call Tuesday with reporters. "We hope this guidance clarifies that aid workers who are partnering with us to help save lives under difficult and dangerous conditions are not in conflict with U.S. law and regulations that seek to…limit resources flowing to al- Shabaab."
Officials on the call said U.S. anti-terrorist policies will take a back seat to the 2.2 million lives now hanging in the balance in famine-stricken parts of southern Somalia, where humanitarian groups have blamed U.S. aid restrictions for hampering their efforts to provide assistance to the most desperate people.
While there have been bans in place that prevent terrorist groups from profiting from U.S. humanitarian funds and resources, the U.S. has not specifically prohibited aid to people in need in southern and central Somalia, one senior administration official clarified.
But after the U.S. State Department added al-Shabaab to its official list of terrorist organisations in 2008, humanitarian groups have complained of feeling constrained in their efforts inside Somalia due to fears that they will face legal ramifications from the U.S. Treasury for carrying out the necessary costs of doing business with al-Shabaab. The group routinely demands tax payments and transportation tolls from agencies seeking access to their territory.
Officials ameliorated those concerns in Tuesday's briefing.
"What we are mainly concerned about is creating the flexibility in all possible ways so that assistance can be provided," one official said.
In a separate briefing circulated Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained that under the new policy, the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will be authorised to "provide grants and contracts to fund non-governmental organisations providing humanitarian assistance in Somalia, including in areas under the de facto control of al-Shabaab."
Those groups would be protected from facing prosecution "in the event their operations may accidentally benefit al-Shabaab", Toner said.
The policy shift is expected to allow more U.S. aid to be directed to the World Food Programme's (WFP) operations in Somalia, which were restored last month after they suspended all operations in January 2010.
One official on the call explained that operating requirements made it impossible for successful relief efforts to be carried out in 2010 when the insecurity of the operating environment reached a new level.
"It's one of the most dangerous operating environments on the globe," that same official added, reminding reporters that 14 WFP aid workers were killed in al-Shabaab territory in 2008.
The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa region are in need of aid and has issued an appeal for an additional 1.4 billion dollars, warning that famine is expected to extend to the entire country of Somalia by September if the international community does not rush to provide assistance.
Yet even with these newly relaxed provisions, officials said access to al-Shabaab territories will still be the greatest challenge in mitigating the crisis.
A central al-Shabaab spokesperson said on Jul. 14 that they would welcome assistance from Western organisations that "did not have an agenda". However, when famine was declared in the territories a week later, al-Shabaab responded by denying that anyone was starving in their territories and moved to uphold the formerly-imposed ban on Western aid.
One U.S. official said – with so many mixed messages from al-Shabaab – it was unlikely that any "grand bargain" could be struck to allow U.S.-funded operations complete access to southern Somalia, but she saw feasible ways to deliver assistance through targeted interventions, directed by experienced partner organisations whose understanding of operating within the particular security conditions was deemed appropriate. She said the U.S. has already engaged extensively with those "implementing partners".
"We do not believe that al-Shabaab is absolutely monolithic," another official explained. "Our experience has been that there are places in southern Somalia where we have been able to deliver aid even though those people are in areas controlled by al- Shabaab."
Toner and other officials – speaking on the condition of anonymity because the policy plans have not yet been finalised – declined to provide any precise language on the policy shift, affirming that the immediate focus should be to deliver food and health aid to the neediest areas as quickly as possible. One official on the call said the specifics would be worked out over time.
"There is a risk here quite honestly…there is some risk of diversion," he admitted. "I think we have decided that it's worth it to risk some diversion, we'll do everything we can to avoid that but the humanitarian need is compelling. The dimensions of this famine, of this humanitarian crisis, are such that we've got to put taking care of people first."
"Our number one goal at this point is to save lives," another official added. "Time is not on our side."