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Conflict Zone Slows Aid For Somalia's Famine Victims

Jul 30, 2011
Originally published on July 30, 2011 6:28 pm

U.S. officials are sounding increasingly frustrated that they and other big donors can't mount the kind of humanitarian operation that is needed in famine-stricken Somalia. Violence in the capital, Mogadishu, this week is just the latest of their troubles.

Aid work is never easy, but the troubles add up quickly in a conflict zone like Somalia, says Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz.

"The delivery of humanitarian assistance, as complicated as it is under the best of circumstances, gets enormously more complicated when you're dealing with issues of conflict," Schwartz says. "Not only in terms of the basic threats to the humanitarian assistance providers and to the recipients of aid, but also to the risk that food, then, becomes part of the currency of the conflict."

Schwartz, who runs the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, believes there are about 2 million Somalis simply out of reach to aid workers now. That's because they live in parts of the country controlled by al-Shabaab, which is on a U.S. terrorism blacklist. Because of U.S. law, there are restrictions on U.S. humanitarian groups hoping to reach those people.

"We are particularly concerned, for example, about internal transportation, which has been subject to taxes and tariffs by al-Shabaab," Schwartz says. "So there are certain restrictions under which U.S. organizations would have to operate, and what we are doing now is looking very aggressively at ways that we can better promote the ability of U.S. humanitarian organizations to provide such assistance."

For now, the U.S. is funding U.N. agencies to see what they are able to do in south and central Somalia, and U.S. officials are negotiating with private American relief groups about easing U.S. restrictions, according to Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, one of dozens of aid groups that al-Shabaab kicked out of Somalia last year.

"We're seeing some signs that are encouraging, but we're not there yet," Konyndyk says.

Asked if the tone of the conversations had become more urgent since the U.N. declared famine, Konyndyk says that has helped focus people's minds quite a bit.

Even as the U.S. tries to figure out ways to get aid into Somalia, it is also trying to step up financial pressure on al-Shabaab. On Friday, the Treasury Department added two members of the group to a sanctions list — Omar Hammami, who holds a U.S. passport, and Hassan Mahat Omar, who is Kenyan. Any bank accounts they may have in the U.S. will be frozen.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: The needs in Somalia are huge. And as you've just heard from Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, the challenges to those who would provide that aid are many, including interference from al-Qaida-linked rebels - an in-effect government - and internal fighting. U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated that they and other big donors just can't mount the kind of humanitarian operation that's urgently needed in Somalia. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that the violence in Mogadishu this week is just the latest of their troubles.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Aid work is never easy but in a conflict zone like Somalia, the troubles add up quickly, says Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: The delivery of humanitarian assistance, as complicated as it is under the best of circumstances, gets enormously more complicated when you're dealing with issues of conflict. Not only in terms of the basic threats to the humanitarian assistance providers and to the recipients of aid, but also to the risk that food then becomes, you know, part of the currency of the conflict.

KELEMEN: Schwartz, who runs the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, believes there are about two million Somalis simply out of reach to aid workers now. That's because they live in parts of the country controlled by al-Shabaab, which is on a terrorism blacklist. And because of U.S. law, there are restrictions on American humanitarian groups hoping to reach those people.

SCHWARTZ: We are particularly concerned, for example, about internal transit, transportation, which has been subject to taxes and tariffs by al-Shabaab. So, there are certain restrictions under which U.S. organizations would have to operate, and what we are doing now is looking very aggressively at ways that we can better promote the ability of U.S. humanitarian organizations to provide such assistance.

KELEMEN: For now, the U.S. is funding United Nations agencies to see what they are able to do in south and central Somalia, and U.S. officials are negotiating with private American relief groups about easing restrictions. Jeremy Konyndyk is with Mercy Corps, one of dozens of aid groups that al-Shabaab kicked out of Somalia last year.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: We're seeing some signs that are encouraging, but we're not there yet.

KELEMEN: Has the tone of the conversations or the urgency changed since the U.N. declared famine?

KONYNDYK: I think that that has helped focus people's minds quite a bit.

KELEMEN: Even as the U.S. tries to figure out ways to get aid into Somalia, it's also trying to step up financial pressure on al-Shabaab. On Friday, the Treasury Department added two members of the group to a sanctions list - and American and a Kenyan. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.