Aid workers struggling to combat the massive famine in Somalia say that complex American counter-terrorism rules are still impeding the delivery of aid to the region, despite recent efforts to ease those restrictions.
The counter-terrorism rules, administered by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), are designed to prevent incidental support from American non-governmental organizations from going to designated terrorist groups like al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that governs large portions of Somalia.
But with nearly 30,000 children already dead from malnourishment -- and millions more at risk -- policymakers and aid groups have increasingly said that feeding the hungry is worth the likelihood that some funds or food aid will fall into the hands of al-Shabaab.
A few weeks ago, officials at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) produced an expanded version of the standard OFAC license, which guaranteed that no NGO that contracts with USAID, and operates in "good faith," would face prosecution if some of their materials ended up in the hands of al-Shabaab.
Humanitarian aid officials working in Somalia have applauded the move. But they say it still leaves a large -- and crucial -- portion of the aid community at risk: namely, any aid organization that does not take U.S. funding.
"There are aid resources that are being negatively impacted by this," a top official at one humanitarian NGO told The Huffington Post. "The fact that a policy decision doesn't seem to have been made is really critical. State and [USAID] said two weeks ago, ‘We've handled this, and we've covered it,’ but they haven't fully. We're looking for there to be broader coverage."
In a brief interview with The Huffington Post last week, Don Steinberg, the deputy administer of USAID, described the legal situation for non-U.S. funded NGOs as a "loophole," and said that an effort was underway to remedy it.
But Robert Laprade, the senior director for Emergencies and Humanitarian Assistance at CARE, an organization that has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa, says the problem goes beyond a simple oversight.
"You can call them loopholes, but I would say they’re more like gaps in our ability to do things quickly in Somalia," he said.
"There seems to be a lot of good will and some action and movement and seriousness about dealing with this," he added. "It's clear that [USAID] wants to get something done. The big question is, Has it gone far enough?"
"My understanding is that NGOs that have come forward individually, who don’t work with the U.S. but work on their own and asked for licenses, have been able to receive them," Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said on Tuesday. "With regard to whether there might be a more expeditious way to do that, I think our work is ongoing internally on how that might work."
NGOs say they hope the Treasury Department will forgo the cumbersome individual licensing process, and instead provide a "general license" for any legitimate aid group to work in Somalia.
"A specific license request entails a legally complex and time-consuming process that can be easily derailed by a range of agendas within the government -- creating a bureaucratic bottleneck that every applying agency would then have to navigate," said a third NGO official who has been closely involved in the policy negotiations.
"A general license solves the problem now and lets groups get to work," the official added. "A specific license approach kicks the can down the road with no assurance to humanitarian responders of whether they will be allowed to work, and under what conditions."
Aid groups admit that it's virtually impossible to quantify exactly how much aid has been withheld from the most stricken parts of southern Somalia due to lingering concerns about American counter-terrorism rules. They agree with Obama administration officials that the dangers posed by al-Shabaab, which has killed and expelled foreign aid workers in the past, are a major impediment to combating the famine.
But they say that the counter-terrorism laws are still having an impact, and that administration promises to not prosecute any good-faith aid operations in Somalia may not offer enough protection.
"We have been pushing the administration to put legal force behind their verbal statements by issuing a general OFAC license," the third NGO official said.
"But so far the administration has resisted doing so, and that makes anyone who is not planning to seek government funding very nervous. The scenario that's in the back of everyone's mind is, let's zoom two years out, we've got a new presidential administration in office and they don't feel at all beholden to some verbal statements by the Obama administration."