Famine Relief Progress Slow in Race to Save Millions

Despite positive developments, aid groups warn situation remains dire.

August 7, 2011, 9:34 AM

August 7, 2011 JOHANNESBURG -- While the world's attention this week has been focused on the global economic impact of the U.S. debt ceiling deal, credit downgrade and subsequent market woes, the drought crisis in the Horn of Africa continues to deteriorate.

Children in are dying at an alarming rate.

The United States estimates that as many as 29,000 Somali children died just in the last 90 days.

Three more areas in Southern Somalia have been added to the famine zone and the UN warns that without urgent intervention all of Southern Somalia will be engulfed in famine, resulting in the likelihood of tens of thousands of Somalis literally starving to death.

There have also been hopeful developments.

The retreat of the Al Qaeda-backed group Al Shabab from Mogadishu means that aid groups will have an easier time reaching the more than 500,000 people living either near or inside the capital city suffering from famine.

It's also significant progress for the current weak central government being backed by African Union troops.

For four years the fiercest battles for the soul of the country have taken place in Mogadishu.

"We have been dreaming of this day for more than three years," Somalia's Prime Minister Prime Minister Dr. Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said in a statement."This is a big day, and a tremendous step forward, towards a more stable Somalia. By their actions in the past hours the extremists have shown that they never had a place in a peaceful Somalia...And the people do not want them here," he said.

Virtually no one believes the retreat will be permanent, a point punctuated by an Al Shabab spokesperson who called the pull-out a "tactical" decision and told reporters the group will continue to fight the government and AU troops using guerilla warfare.

"We shall fight the enemy wherever they are," Ali Mohamed Rage, reportedly told a local radio station. He also emphasized the militant group will be tightening its control in Southern Somalia, where Shabab rules unabated.

But even within the Islamist insurgency there remains a long-standing conflict within the leadership made up of mostly foreign Al Qaeda fighters, who want Shabab to play a bigger role in waging global jihad and Somali clan leaders who want to keep the movement Somalia-focused, defeating the current government and AU forces and impose strict sharia law.

The confusion over whether the militants will allow foreign aid agenciesto operate in areas they control has highlighted the rift, with some local clan leaders insisting that they won't let their people starve.

Some humanitarian organizations like UNICEF are already operating in Shabab-controlled areas, and more aid agencies are working on getting access to the most needy.

"We do not believe that Shabab is a monolithic -centrally controlled organization," Bruce Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs told reporters last week. "There are degrees of Shababness, so to speak."

The United States also announced it was lifting restrictions on humanitarian groups working in areas controlled by the insurgents.

Al Shabab is classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization making it against the law to provide any material support to the group.

In 2010, many aid agencies pulled out of the very areas now in the famine zone because paying taxes imposed by Shabab and other restrictions set by the militant group made it impossible to operate in the region safely without running afoul of anti-terror laws.

Now, as long as agencies invoke good faith effort to ensure that aid does not go to Shabab, they will not have to worry about being prosecuted, U.S. State Department officials announced.

"What we would like is for all the food aid to go to the people in need," said Horton, but said the U.S. government recognizes that, "sometimes some of this assistance may accidentally reach Al Shabab."

The change in the restrictions is a reflection of the extraordinary circumstances aid group are facing; racing to feed some three million people who are on the verge of starvation, with almost no access.

But despite the positive developments in curbing the fall out from the worst drought in the Horn of Africa in 60 years, the overall news remains dire.

Aid agencies say they are still woefully underfunded to help the now 13 million people living in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djbouti in need of emergency assistance.

The United States, which has pledged more than $430 million dollars to drought and famine relief efforts, has dispatched Jill Biden, the Vice President's wife and former Senator Dr. Bill Frist to Kenya as part of a fact-finding delegation.

The team will visit the sprawling and over-crowded Dadaab refugee camp, considered a flashpoint of the crisis. Already home to nearly 400,000 Somali refugees, it continues to receive an average of 1300 Somalis per day, mostly women and children, many of whom have walked for days to escape hunger in their war-torn country.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge for the humanitarian community is the fact that the people who are most in need remain at the mercy of an unpredictable, unorganized, terrorist organization.

"We are working with our partners to give them the flexibility they need," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Dr. Reuben Brigety. "But all of the best intentions of our partners and the donor community cannot succeed unless the access and security issues are addressed."

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