America defends its response to Somali famine

I've just been to the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya to see the latest influx of refugees from the famine. I'll be blogging about that shortly, but I wanted to flag up something else beforehand.

My last posting looked at the various alleged culprits for the famine - weather aside - being singled out at the moment. Not surprisingly some people took exception to America being put in the number one spot. In a postscript I noted, perhaps too late, that I hadn't intended this to be a ranking system - just a list with perhaps the more provocative targets nearer the top.

Anyway - although we naturally treat all blog messages as equal, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnny Carson, took the trouble to respond at length, and so I'm attaching his letter below. Please let me know what you think of it.

Dear Andrew,

Thanks for your interesting "tour d'culprits" post on the Horn of Africa famine. Your list is certainly encompassing, but does not reflect current US policy in Somalia or the longstanding commitment of the United States to provide humanitarian assistance to the Somali people and others suffering from drought in the region. I think you also give short shrift to al-Shabab's responsibility for making the effects of a difficult climatic situation significantly and substantially worse. I read your blog every day and respect your views, but in this case, I think you got it a bit wrong.

On the US humanitarian response to the crisis, I offer the following notes:

Image copyright AP
Image caption The US has contributed nearly half a billion dollars this year to help ease the Somali famine

- The United States is one of the largest donors to the crisis. Currently, our contributions stand at nearly $459 million dollars for the current fiscal year. The US-funded FEWS NET system anticipated the crisis and we began to pre-position food in September 2010. And in fact it has been our mitigation efforts since then that have greatly limited the famine from reaching the vast majority of people affected by the widespread regional drought, who are in Ethiopia and Somalia. Again, the majority of these people are Somalis who fled the grip of al-Shabab.

- Working with courageous international relief organizations, the US is providing assistance inside Somalia. About $80 million of our total assistance to the region this year has been to people in Somalia, including in Mogadishu and areas in South and Central Somalia.

- In addition to working to meet immediate needs, we are committed to supporting long-term responses to the cycles of drought in the Horn to mitigate and eventually preclude the crisis we are now facing. Through our dual-track policy on Somalia, helping the Somali people build a functioning state, we aim to bring about the stability critical to restoring a normal life for Somalis. Working with national and regional programs such as the Ethiopian Pastoralist Livelihoods Initiative and the East African Livestock Trade Program, the US Feed the Future program seeks to build the resilience needed for future droughts. I also note that the United States has been the largest single bilateral country contributor to food and humanitarian assistance to Somalia and the Horn of Africa (including Ethiopia and Kenya) for the past decade.

On al-Shabab, allow me the following observations:

- It is no coincidence that the two areas in which the UN has declared that famine exists are areas ruled by elements of al-Shabab. As you note, al-Shabab has killed and kidnapped aid workers, taxed humanitarian food shipments, and banned assistance to starving people. The food crisis is severe throughout the Horn, but only under al-Shabab's control has it reached famine proportions.

- Al-Shabab earned its designation by the US as a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization through a host of violent acts, most of which killed, maimed and crippled Somalis. No one should be surprised that the US has a law that seeks to restrict the flow of money and other resources to a group that stones 13 year-old girls, kills graduating medical students, and would rather see Somalis die than receive food. Reuters, Associated Press and others published interviews with Somali refugees on July 27 that paint a stark picture of the grim realities of life under al-Shabab.

- Al-Shabab is not monolithic and there are sub-sets of the organization that may be willing to allow humanitarian assistance to reach Somali's in need. In spite of our concerns about the organization, we are working with international organizations to explore the options to provide additional aid inside Somalia. The United States does not prevent any organization from providing aid within Somalia.

- Terrorism, piracy, regional security, human rights, and resources are as important to the people of the Horn of Africa as they are to anyone else. While the US provides both immediate and long term responses to the region's humanitarian needs, we will continue to work with the government and people of the region to address these other shared interests. We are determined to work with the African Union, the United Nations, and the Inter-governmental Authority for Development to help stabilize the situation in Somalia and to help address the current humanitarian crisis.


Ambassador Johnnie Carson

US Assistant Secretary of State

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