Before the first government to be internationally recognized in two decades came into power in early 2013, Somalia had been a country without an effective government since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Since then, two decades of conflict, severe weather, and the lack of basic services and infrastructure have contributed to major food shortages for almost half of the country’s ten million people. Amidst the rampant insecurity and shortages, humanitarian efforts were further complicated by U.S. restrictions that prohibited aid delivery to the nearly two million civilians living in areas of the country controlled by al-Shabaab, a militant group that operates in southern Somalia, during the 2011 famine.
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Primary Armed Group in Somalia
- al-Shabaab was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. in 2008. Means “The Youth” in Arabic. The group emerged in 2006 to drive out Ethiopian forces who invaded Somalia. Since 2008 the group has publicly aligned itself with international terrorist networks and at times banned international aid groups from serving civilians trapped on its territory.
The 2011 Famine
Following months of drought, rising food costs and several reports of a major food crisis developing across much of East Africa, the UN declared that two regions in southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, were experiencing famine in July 2011. By September 2011 the UN reported that more than 13 million people across the Horn of Africa, including four million Somalis, were in urgent need of life-saving assistance.
Despite the advanced warnings, a May 2013 report produced by the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Network (FEWSnet) and the UN estimated that more than a quarter of a million people died during the Somali famine from October 2010 to April 2012. Almost half of those who died in southern and central parts of the country were children under the age of five. While many factors combined to cause the famine, the report listed the inadequate international response as a contributing to the high death rate. “There is consensus that the humanitarian response to the famine was mostly late and insufficient,” the study concluded.
Historically the U.S. was the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Somalia. But that ended after the U.S. designated al-Shabaab as a terrorist group in 2008. Under U.S. law, anyone that provides support to a designated terrorist group could be subject to criminal penalties. Fears of prosecution for even inadvertent diversion of resources to the militant group prompted the U.S. to scale back its aid by nearly 88 percent, from $237 million in 2008 to only $20 in 2011, and forced many international aid organizations to curtail humanitarian operations in areas where al-Shabaab was present.
In response to the growing crisis, prominent aid groups called on the U.S. government to issue a license that would allow them to engage with al-Shabaab when necessary to reach the nearly two million civilians trapped on the group’s territory. In August 2011 the State Department announced that it would ease restrictions on some aid delivery, but the announcement gave no guarantees that a group would not be prosecuted for providing material support to al-Shabaab, and the announcement only applied to U.S. funded organizations. InterAction, an association of U.S. NGOs, asked the Treasury Department to issue a General License that would provide the same protections to non-U.S. funded groups. Treasury denied the request In November 2011.
As of May 2013, FEWSnet estimates that at least one million Somalis continue to face serious food shortages.