As if delivering food into the middle of a conflict where you are not welcome were not difficult enough aid agencies trying to save the starving people of Somalia have also faced the prospect of prosecution in a US court.
In 2008 Washington designated al-Shabaab, Somalia’s Islamist militants, a terrorist organisation meaning that if aid were diverted by its fighters or pay-offs made at its roadblocks humanitarian agencies could be put on trial for funding a terrorist organisation in contravention of US Treasury laws.
This week that changed raising hopes that more charities will be more willing to try to help the estimated 2.2 million people at risk of starvation in Shabaab-controlled southern Somalia.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman said, Washington has issued, “new guidance that would allow greater flexibility for NGOs and aid workers to get their assistance into those regions that are controlled by al-Shabaab and to the people who need it.”
“It’s an easing of restrictions,” Toner added saying that the US government did not want to add legal barriers to the already heavy constraints on working in southern Somalia.
But critics say the damage has already been done. US funding to the World Food Programme in Somalia fell precipitously after al-Shabaab was designated a terrorist group in 2008 from $150 million to just $13 million last year.
US aid agencies and charities also became very wary of working in the area for fear of prosecution under the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations.
Announcing the famine in Somalia last month Mark Bowden, the UN’s top humanitarian official for the country, conceded that the US restrictions have, “had an impact on the levels of humanitarian assistance being provided by the US”, traditionally one of the world’s biggest donors.