Last Wednesday, I had the privilege of testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ African Affairs Subcommittee on the intensifying crisis in the Horn of Africa. The issue could not be more pressing – even as the hearing was underway, the United Nations declared that famine had spread to three additional regions in southern Somalia, and it expects famine to spread across all regions of the south in the next four to six weeks. At least 12.4 million people across the Horn are in need of humanitarian assistance — 3.7 million of them in Somalia alone.
The subcommittee’s chairman, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, and its ranking member, Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, took the very unusual step of staying on into the Senate recess to hold the hearing now, rather than wait until the Senate comes back into session in September. They asked thoughtful, pointed questions and are genuinely seized with the unfolding crisis. Their leadership on this issue is important, and much appreciated.
The hearing also came on the heels of the U.S. government’s recent announcement that it is easing rules that had previously impeded U.S. assistance from reaching southern Somalia. The rules had thrown up significant legal roadblocks to the humanitarian response as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) feared prosecution if any amount of aid were to be diverted. Meanwhile, over the last two years we saw that obtaining an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) license was politically difficult and time-consuming.
The rule change is an important — but only partial — step forward. As I urged in my testimony, the protections now extended to USAID and its partners through their OFAC license should also be extended in full to NGOs that are operating with their own funding or funding from non-U.S. donors. Additionally, I advised that Congress re-examine the interplay between OFAC restrictions and humanitarian aid, and explore whether a more streamlined and responsive approach can be found that would minimize the long, drawn-out bureaucratic process that we have seen in the face of such an emergency.
I also encouraged the senators to help ensure a robust U.S. government response. The U.S. response this year (at $459 million, with another $105 million just pledged) stands at roughly half of what the Bush Administration contributed in response to a lesser drought in the region in 2008 ($1,033 million). Meanwhile, U.S. support specifically to Somalia has dropped by 69 percent between 2008 and 2011. To use a different benchmark, the U.S. contribution towards the Horn this year amounts to roughly one-sixth of the amount that Congress appropriated for the Haiti response, despite the fact that the population at risk in the Horn is greater than the entire population of Haiti.
Moreover, there are real concerns about whether the U.S. will be able to sustain even this level of response as the crisis continues to worsen heading into the fall. The House of Representatives is proposing — in the face of this famine — to slash the very accounts that are financing the U.S. government response:
- Food for Peace (a 30 percent proposed cut below FY11 levels, and 50 percent below FY08 levels), which funds food aid
- International Disaster Assistance (a 12 percent proposed cut below FY11 levels), which funds non-food assistance such as water and medical services, and
- The Migration and Refugee Assistance account (an 11 percent proposed cut below FY11 levels), which provides US support to Somali refugees in the camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.
These accounts are saving lives every day in the Horn. Cutting them now, as the House is proposing, would be a tremendous — and for many Somalis, fatal — abdication of U.S. leadership in the world.