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USAID Chief: Famine in Somalia ‘Worse Than You Can Imagine’

August 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In a new effort to alleviate the suffering in famine-stricken Eastern Africa, the U.S. government eased its restrictions on providing aid to Somalia -- aimed at sanctioning al-Shabab -- in hopes of getting more food to starving people. Margret Warner discusses the change in policy with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a new step to help ease the suffering in Somalia.

Margaret Warner has our update.

MARGARET WARNER: For weeks, the world has seen heart-wrenching pictures of starving children and adults seeking refuge from drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa.

As many as 12 million people in five countries are at risk. But the hardest-hit and most vulnerable are in southern Somalia. There, civil conflict has combined with the regional drought to produce famine. Tens of thousands of Somalis have died and more than half-a-million children are on the brink of starvation.

Yet, Western aid isn’t flowing to where the worst of the famine is. That’s because much of southern Somalia is controlled by the Islamic insurgent group al-Shabab. Shabab has threatened and killed international aid workers there.

What’s more, U.S. antiterrorism restrictions make it a crime for any American charity to provide support directly or indirectly to al-Shabab. Today, at the urging of major aid groups, the U.S. government eased that threat.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is here to explain. He’s just back from the region.

And, Administrator Shah, thank you for joining us.

DR. RAJIV SHAH, United States Agency for International Development: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You are just back from visiting Somali refugees at camps in Kenya who fled from these al-Shabab-controlled regions. How bad was the situation?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, it’s tragic. And it’s worse than I think most people believe.

I met a young woman named Habiba who had walked for 33 days with her two children and what little belongings she had, showed up at the Dadaab refugee camp, like tens of thousands of her country mates, needing food, needing medicine, her children needing health interventions just to survive.

And it is a sign of what has happened. We have known for more than 10 months, thanks to a famine early-warning system that we helped set up, that this region is going through the worst drought in more than 60 years. And it is leading to a real famine, where children, in particular, are vulnerable and are dying every day from preventable causes, because they are acutely malnourished.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what difference — what will be the practical effect of what you announced today? In other words, what will aid groups who want to operate in southern Somalia be able to do that they can’t do now legally?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, you know, the United States has been on the forefront of the response to the drought and famine throughout the Horn of Africa for the past 10 months.

But even on the emergency front, and especially in south and central Somalia, the real issue is humanitarian access. And, right now, and as has been the case for years, the al-Shabab and other authorities have limited access by humanitarian groups. And, in fact, partners like the World Food Program had to leave Somalia in January of 2010 after suffering 14 casualties.

So, we hope that — and we are working hard to make sure that authorities in Somalia allow access for humanitarian organizations and NGOs. And the United States has been supporting those organizations and will continue to support those organizations going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: But what the aid groups were saying, the NGOs, was, also, we feel we’re in legal jeopardy. And that was the basis, I thought, of today’s announcement.

What — can you be more specific about what — give us an example of something an aid group could now do, if they were operating in good faith, that they couldn’t do five days ago?  

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Sure.

Well — well, you know, now — now humanitarian groups and NGOs can operate without the concern of legal risk, should their convoys of food be appropriated by local authorities or should they be taxed or in a position where they are forced to provide some material support to those authorities.

But the — I would just point out that the real issue is not the legal restriction and has not been any set of legal restrictions placed by our government or any other government. The real issue for the past year has been humanitarian access. And we see, regularly, food convoys getting attacked, humanitarian workers being threatened and asked to leave.

And, as a result, despite the fact that the drought affects 12.5 million people in five countries, the famine actually affects only al-Shabab control areas in south and central Somalia, about 2.8 million people.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what evidence is there that, in fact, at least maybe some local Shabab commanders are willing to let Western aid groups in? Because, as you said, they — they actually kicked out Western aid groups a year ago. Then they have sent mixed signals since then about whether they are welcome back.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Well, we have actually seen some positive signals from a range of partners in and a range of authorities in Somalia that indicate that there is going to be some improvement in the access for humanitarian organizations.

It’s based on those signals that we have worked with the United Nations and with a broad range of NGOs and organizations, including European partners, partners from the Gulf states, and local community-based organizations that do have some ability to operate, and we’re seeking to work with them.

We know how to save lives right now, and we have been well-positioned for more than 10 months in most of the Horn of Africa, and we’re counting on improved humanitarian access to help save lives in south and central Somalia, and working in a very focused way to make that happen.

MARGARET WARNER: And if that humanitarian access doesn’t get better, what — how great are the chances that the officially designated U.N. famine zones are going to actually expand?

DR. RAJIV SHAH: well, the consequences of this drought and famine will get worse before they get better.

And President Obama launched, when he first took office, a major effort to bring the world together to address food insecurity and precisely these types of problems through a program we call Feed the Future, because we know that, by investing in agricultural development, by investing in creating safety nets for vulnerable communities, by supporting countries to create the protections from these kinds of problems, we can avoid these types of famines.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it is cheaper and safer for America to make those investments now than to deal with the consequences, the tragic consequences, of famines, of failed states and of food riots, when we see what’s happening now transpire throughout parts of Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID, thank you so much.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Thank you.