US withholds urgent aid for Somalia as famine hits
Published 20/07/2011 | 05:00
Urgently needed US aid for Somalia worth tens of millions of dollars is being withheld as parts of the country are today to be officially declared a famine zone.
Conditions in the country, blighted first by war and then by drought, are so severe in some places that what was an "emergency" has now tipped into a "catastrophe", the UN said. It would be the first time the UN has officially used the term 'famine' since almost a million Ethiopians starved to death in 1984.
But Washington, the world's biggest donor to Somalia until 2009, is now barred from funding food appeals if there is a risk its aid would "materially benefit" terrorists.
The new rules, from the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, came into force after reports that al-Shabaab, Somalia's al-Qa'ida-linked insurgents, were taxing food convoys, stealing supplies and threatening aid agency workers.
Since then, US aid spending in Somalia has fallen by 88pc, from more than €106m in 2008 to €9.19m this year. By contrast, UN figures show that funding from other international donors including Britain has increased in the same period, largely channelled through local organisations and the few UN agencies still operating in southern Somalia.
That has still not been enough to avert the current disaster, said Jeremy Konyndyk, a policy director with Mercy Corps in the US, which has been affected by the anti-terror rules.
"Avoiding aid diversion is important, but the US's overzealous approach led to a damaging collapse in US humanitarian support to Somalia," he said. "This has undermined humanitarian response and preparedness and other donors have been unable to pick up the slack."
Oxfam, which warns today of a half-billion pound "black hole" in funding for drought appeals for 11m people in the Horn of Africa, said that the world had failed to respond quickly enough to what was a "predictable disaster".
"If more action had been taken earlier we would not now be at the stage where so many people are facing starvation," said Fran Equiza, Oxfam's regional director for the Horn of Africa.
In parts of one of the two regions to be officially certified as in famine, the number of people dying exceeds the official threshold for that classification by a factor of 10.
The withdrawal of US funds for southern Somalia, coupled with al-Shabaab's long-held belligerence towards foreigners, was "now costing lives", said Mr Konyndyk.
He added: "The aid effort will remain totally inadequate if legal restrictions force the US to remain on the sidelines."
It is hoped that today's declaration of famine will spur Washington into a change of heart, although Johnnie Carson, Hillary Clinton's deputy in charge of African affairs, said that Washington "had not and would not" talk to al-Shabaab.
Some aid agencies, including Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, with support from Britain, have begun delivering air-dropped supplies into Islamist-held areas, although their scope is limited. (© Daily Telegraph, London)