Background Briefing on Somalia and Delivery of Humanitarian Assistance
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just remind everybody that this is – this call is on background and ask that if you find quotes that you want to use that you attribute those to Senior Administration Officials. And I think what we’re going to do is I will try to offer a sort of a quick chapeau of where we are and what our concerns are and invite both [Senior Administration Official Two] and [Senior Administration Official Three] to add to that. And then we’ll be happy to take your questions.
The main thing that I want you to understand is that as this crisis in the Horn of Africa, this humanitarian crisis, continues to develop, the U.S. Government approach is going to develop as well. Right now, we estimate that there are about nearly 12 million people primarily in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Three reasons for this: This two-year drought that we’re currently experiencing, which is part of a 60-year drought cycle; then continued lack of central government in Somalia; and then the work of al-Shabaab or the depredations of al-Shabaab in southern and central Somalia.
We are taking all of the necessary steps. We’re doing everything we can to provide assistance to Somalis in need. That is really – right now our primary concern is helping to save lives in the Horn of Africa. And I just have to point out that it’s not a coincidence that the two areas in Somalia where the UN has declared famine conditions exist are areas under al-Shabaab’s control. Be that as it may, we are doing everything we can to get aid to people who need it. And we do remain, of course, concerned about the actions of al-Shabaab. And so as we’re delivering aid to people in need, we have got to take care that al-Shabaab is not able to profit from this humanitarian crisis.
Now, U.S. law has never prohibited humanitarian assistance to people in need in Somalia. In fact, about 90 million – or rather, about $80 million of our aid thus far has, in fact, been delivered to people in Somalia. But in the face of this evolving crisis and the extreme humanitarian needs, we have issued new guidance to allow more flexibility and to provide a wider range of age – of aid to a larger number of areas in need. We hope this guidance will clarify that aid workers who are partnering with the U.S. Government to help save lives under difficult and dangerous conditions are not in conflict with U.S. laws and regulations that seek to limit the resources or to eliminate resources flowing to al-Shabaab.
In essence, what we’re doing here is working to reassure humanitarian assistance organizations and workers that good-faith efforts to deliver food to people in need will not risk prosecution. We’re working very closely with those implementing partners now to ensure that every possible precaution is taken to avoid the diversion of humanitarian funds to al-Shabaab. And we have put into place risk-mitigation procedures, risk-based assessments and other conditions for our agreement to try to get aid to the people who need it without helping al-Shabaab profit.
So that is sort of the quick overview of where we are. I think you’ve probably seen stories in both The Washington Post and The New York Times today that describe this evolving situation, and let me ask [Senior Administration Official Two] from [Agency Withheld] if she’s got anything to add.
[Senior Administration Official Two].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. Thanks, [Senior Administration Official One]. I just want to underscore how deeply concerned we are about the situation, really throughout the Horn as [Senior Administration Official One] described, but particularly in southern Somalia. This – the designation of famine doesn’t come lightly, and as serious as this drought is about the Horn because of the factors that [Senior Administration Official One] identified, in southern Somalia, we are extremely concerned at particularly the potential for the death of children under five and the increasing malnutrition. So we have been working aggressively with the international donor community and all of our partners to move in all ways possible assistance into southern Somalia. We don’t expect there to be any grand bargain where we’ll be able to have access to all of southern Somalia, but we are working to find whatever ways we can to deliver that assistance and have a significant contribution of food arriving as we speak.
19,000 metric tons started arriving last week. We have been working throughout the Horn since the early warning systems alerted us to a possible drought last fall, and we were able to preposition supplies and increase programming throughout the Horn. The difficulty has been access in southern Somalia, and so that is the biggest challenge facing us right now, is how to get aid to the people who need it most who are still stuck inside of south Somalia. We’ve seen a huge refugee outflow into Ethiopia and Kenya as well as a significant displacement – about 1.6 million Somalis have fled north into the urban areas, which is – also presents a humanitarian challenge for us.
We believe that there will be ways and opportunities to move selectively into parts of southern Somalia with food, health – health is a critical piece of this given the leading cause of death in the ’92 famine was health-related causes – and send the therapeutic and supplemental feeding that will help save lives. We’re moving aggressively to provide all of that assistance.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Senior Administration Official Two]. Let me ask [Senior Administration Official Three] from [Agency Withheld] if she has anything to add to this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: I’d like to reiterate what [Senior Administration Official Two] and [Senior Administration Official One] are already highlighting for everybody. It’s – I mean, obviously, the conditions are really terrible and it’s – it is no coincidence that the worst-affected areas are those that are under the control of al-Shabaab. And we’re really working very closely – Treasury, State, AID, everybody with equities in this in the U.S. Government – to make sure that we have the provision that we need for expanded activities in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, notwithstanding the unstable environment there and the operating challenges that the NGOs face in going back in. And we have seen in the past al-Shabaab extorting and diverting resources, so while we want to do everything we can to mitigate that reality, we also want to ensure that assistance gets to the people who need it most. And to that end, we’re working very closely together to make that happen.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official Three]. Let me just remind everybody again that this is on background. You can quote us as Senior Administration Officials. But with that, why don’t we open the mikes and take your questions. Go ahead, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1, please make sure your phone is unmuted, and record your name clearly. Again, that is *1. And one moment, please, for that first question.
And Josh Rogin with Foreign Policy, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for taking the time to do the call and thank you for your service. I’m wondering if you can explain to us, what is the recent policy change exactly that was announced as part of this briefing? And the notice also says that you would talk about U.S. sanctions on al-Shabaab. Is there something new on that? Can you speak a bit more in detail about what are the new developments today that are going to help you implement this policy? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, Josh, thanks for the question. Let me take that, and if anybody else has anything. The main thing is, as I said, we are seeking to reassure our humanitarian assistance partners, implementing partners, that they need not fear prosecution under OFAC regulations as long as they are engaged in good-faith efforts to deliver food to people in need. The details of that I think are going to be worked out on a – sort of an evolving basis. Just – I’m not going to get down into the individual weeds of that, but that’s – the main thrust of it is to reassure people.
Of course, as I said earlier, there’s never been a U.S. law prohibiting develop – delivery of assistance to people in need in Somalia. But the concern about diversion to al-Shabaab I think has made some humanitarian assistance organizations feel a bit constrained, and we’re trying to help them not feel constrained, trying to help them move the food to where it’s most desperately needed.
At the same time, I think there have been a couple of new designees, al-Shabaab actors who have been designated as subject to OFAC restrictions. I think those are the two – those answer your questions.
QUESTION: Well, I’m sorry to seem repetitive, but I understand that you want to assure aid workers that they should not be discouraged from sending aid because of this reason, but why? You have to tell us what assurances you’re giving them exactly that should give them increased confidence that this aid can be distributed in an effective and – way. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. Again, I think that the modalities, the specifics of that, are going to be worked out over time. Again, our concern is to make sure that people who need it get the aid, and that’s the reassurance we’re seeking to give to the humanitarian assistance workers and organizations.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Howard LaFranchi with Christian Science Monitor, you may ask your question.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, thanks for doing this. I guess this question would be for [Senior Administration Official Three]. You mentioned the challenges that NGOs face in going back in. Is that specifically – are you specifically referring to southern Somalia, and did you say that – do you have some confirmation or some – in your contacts with assistance organizations that they are starting to or are determined to get back into the south?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Actually, this is [Senior Administration Official Two] and maybe --
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL TWO: -- I can comment on that. Since January 2010, many of the large international UN and NGO agencies have not been operating in southern Somalia. They suspended operations because the operating environment just got too difficult. There were – it’s very insecure. There are a lot of operating requirements that made it impossible to do the job they needed to do.
So we have been working closely with them as we, the international community, have worked aggressively to try to get assistance back into southern Somalia as the situation deteriorated. And as I mentioned earlier, in early July, there was an al-Shabaab spokesperson who said that they would, in fact, welcome humanitarian assistance to return. We’re – we remain encouraged at that and have tested every possible way in which we can get assistance back in. We don’t ultimately expect this to be a monolithic solution, but we are finding there are ways and places where organizations are able to return. And we have seen airlifts of food go into select areas of southern Somalia. And international agencies who have the experience and understanding of how to operate in that risky, tough environment are making all efforts to move as much assistance in as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: And if I could just add, when you spoke of after January 2010, when you spoke of operating requirements that made it impossible to do their job, were those self-imposed requirements? What requirements were those?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, I’m talking about taxes and tolls and restrictions on who could work, safety considerations. They’re --
QUESTION: Imposed from the ground – on the ground?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: On the ground.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL TWO: That’s right. No, it was the operating conditions. And it is one of the most insecure operating environments on the globe. There have been – don’t forget – 14 WSP aid workers who lost their lives since 2008 in that environment.
QUESTION: Right. Yeah. Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And just a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please to press *1. And Jill Dougherty with CNN, you may ask your question.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, there. Thank you. I have a couple of questions. One is just to clarify – we had understood that al-Shabaab had reneged on that promise to let aid in. Can you give us a status on that? Is that correct that they did make that promise but then didn’t follow through or reneged on it?
And also, is there concern – I know, of course, you want to get aid in to people, but is there concern that in bringing that aid in, al-Shabaab may simply take it or take credit for bringing it in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior Administration Official Two], let me take at least the first part of that. Yes, Jill, I think it was the 14th or 15th of July a central al-Shabaab spokesman said that they would welcome humanitarian assistance from organizations that, quote, “did not have an agenda,” end quote. Then about a week later, the United Nations declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia under Shabaab control, and Shabaab responded by saying, “Well, that’s just propaganda. There’s no famine here. And by the way, we decided to uphold our ban to maintain the ban on humanitarian organizations.” So that was sort of the line from al-Shabaab central, if you will.
But what we believe is that al-Shabaab is not a monolithic organization, and as [Senior Administration Official Two] indicated, there are places where we believe we’ve been able to get food in. Our approach has been to – so far, to ask al-Shabaab to pull back and allow unfettered, untaxed access to people in need, and in a couple of places, I think they’ve been willing to do that.
[Senior Administration Official Two], I don’t know if you have anything to add to that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I would just say our number one goal at this point is to save lives. Time is not on our side. We are very, very concerned about the rising fatalities and malnutrition rates. We are looking at not only providing food assistance, but also really critical health assistance. As I mentioned, we know that that’s the leading cause of death for children under five.
We don’t expect there to be a grand bargain where there’s unfettered assistance throughout south Somalia, but we do believe that there are very concerned leaders on the ground who will enable the kind of assistance that will save lives to go forward. And we are – mainly, what we’re concerned about is creating the flexibility and all the possible ways in which that assistance can be provided.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Our next question comes from Mary-Beth Sheridan with Washington Post.
QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for doing the call. I just wish it was on the record, guys. I understand sometimes there’s very sensitive stuff, but it doesn’t strike me that that’s what we’re talking about, so I hope in the future there’s a consideration of putting this on the record, or this type of call.
My question is: In terms of providing assurances to aid organizations, I mean, my sense is the U.S. has been trying all along to assure them, but the problem is if you’re an aid organization, that may not feel like enough. You’re going to want to really know that if you have to pay a toll to al-Shabaab to get food to starving people, you’re not going to be brought up on charges. So my impression is that what’s going on here is that we’re talking about expanded licenses to aid groups that will actually allow them to do more things, and it’s not just a – just sort of like, “Oh, don’t worry, we don’t want to prosecute you,” but in fact, they’ll be allowed to do things they were not – under the rules before were really not permitted to do, such as use U.S. funding for transportation. Am I understanding that correctly, or am I wrong there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICAL TWO: Mary-Beth, you are exactly right, and that – it’s because we want our partners to have that comfort and not be worrying about that at a time where they need to be focused on really looking at all the ways to get assistance in, that we are now authorized to provide grants and contracts to NGOs with that kind of expanded license.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Dan Sagalyn, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for your time. So you guys have been in touch with the NGO community. What is your expectation for what’s going to happen next? Do the NGOs say that they’re going to step up their efforts a lot, that this really would give them the freedom to operate? What kind of feedback are you getting from them with respect to what you guys are doing now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. We’ve actually been in conversation with the NGOs for several months, and I traveled to the region in May to have conversations both in Nairobi and Hargeisa with partners. They are looking at all the ways in which they can gain access. This is one of the most difficult operating environments on the planet right now, so it is important that there not be a flood of inexperienced groups. This isn’t Haiti, this isn’t the tsunami. And so we expect that there will be a relatively small group of very seasoned and experienced groups who are able to operate there. We have been in close conversations with them, and they are gearing up. There are a lot of security concerns.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Anne Walters, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. I was hoping you could detail a little bit more specifically what concerns you have heard from these aid groups in the past in regards to the U.S. policy and how much they felt specifically that their work has been hindered by U.S. policy in the past that’s kind of prompting this clarification?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICAL ONE: [Senior Administration Official Two], do you want to take that one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think that’s a good question for the NGOs. We’ve been working with them to try to find all the ways in which they are able to provide access. I think what this new measure does is ensure that just – there’s greater comfort and assured flexibility. And I would urge you to – I think the – actually, the number one issue is truly safety and security and the ability to gain access into those areas.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Alberto Mucci. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi. Thank you. You said before that you can get – you can bring aid into some areas and not into some other ones. Would this be any chance of being a split – of being the epiphenomenon of a split between the al-Shabaab movement? And then I had another question, and I’m sorry if I’m repetitive, but I have not understood: What exactly are the sanctions that the U.S. Government is thinking of imposing on al-Shabaab? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, as I said, we do not believe that al-Shabaab is absolutely monolithic, and an al-Shabaab statement made in one place may be interpreted differently. Our experience has been that there are places in southern Somalia where we’ve been able to deliver aid to people in need, even though those people are in al-Shabaab controlled territory. So I think we’ve got to sort of take this on a case-by-case, sub-region by sub-regional basis.
Our concern, of course, has been all along that U.S. resources not enrich al-Shabaab, which – I mean, that’s understandable, I think. This is an organization that does not mean us well or the people of Somalia well. So there are – under law, there are penalties for assisting al-Shabaab, and those are the sorts of things that we have to continue. We’ve got to find a way to thread this needle between providing assistance to people in need while avoiding helping al-Shabaab profit from that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: If I could just add to that, we have been providing assistance all along. Inside Somalia, it just has been at a much lower level because of the inability of more organizations to get in. I think the critical issue for us is understanding that with the famine designation, the hope that there is an ability to get in to more parts with more assistance to the people who need it in southern Somalia and just enable as many – as much aid as possible to reach those people.
QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. Is it possible to speak – to ask one more thing, just as a clarification?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I’m sorry. To speak to which?
QUESTION: No, no, just – I was asking like – I don’t think my question was understood correctly. I was wondering if there is a split between al-Shabaab because of this aid and because of the situation. You said al-Shabaab is not a monolithic entity, and therefore I’m asking you if there is a split between the movement, not that in some areas they allow access and some they don’t. I understand that. But if we can gain something more from this, from the facts of some of this – from the fact that you can bring aid just to some areas and not to other ones? Can we talk about a fight between the movement caused by this drought?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No. I think really our focus right now, again, is on trying to get assistance --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: -- to people in need, and I don’t have information on the internal workings of al-Shabaab.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Kirit Radia. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Thanks so much for doing this. I did have a couple questions. The first one – and I missed a couple questions, so I’m sorry if this was already addressed – can you say what measures you might put in place to ensure that this does not open up funding routes for al-Shabaab for any of their illicit activities, and how are you going to be assuring that the activities that are going to be going to the area are going to be legit?
And then the other question was if you had any estimate about how much aid this might open up, how many more people might be able to be reached. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, on the first part of your question, I don’t have super specifics about that, but I can tell you that we work very closely with our implementing partners to put into place risk mitigation procedures, try to assess where we can work most effectively, and I think they all understand it’s not in anyone’s interest that al-Shabaab profit from this. I don’t know.
[Senior Administration Official Two], maybe you can provide more information about where or how much more aid we think that this might enable us to deliver.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. As [Senior Administration Official One] said, we’ve worked very closely with our implementing partners to ensure that they have the right precautions in place to avoid the diversion of humanitarian funds. They all have risk-based assessments. But they – there is also a great concern among all of the humanitarian community to have a common operating set of approaches that doesn’t pay the taxes and tolls and enables the aid to go directly to people.
So we’ve worked very closely with them; we’ll continue to do so. We know from the surveys that have been taken and from the UN appeals that we’re looking at, about 2.85 million people who are in need in southern Somalia. And the UN has made the statement that we need about 300 million additional funds over the next four months or so, which would be if we were able to reach everybody. And we continue to work very closely with our international partners to both ensure that there’s funding, but more importantly, to ensure that there’s access or to determine where we have access.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. I guess my question on the first one was more about whether you were concerned that other groups could take advantage of the loosening of the restrictions, and how you guard against that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, look, I think there is a risk here, quite honestly. Our first concern is to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need. And there may be – I think there is some risk that – of diversion. We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that diversion. But again, I think that the dimensions of this famine, of this humanitarian crisis, are such that we’ve got to put taking care of people first.
One of the things that make this – makes this so compelling is the number of children who are affected. Somebody was telling me this morning that Kevin Rudd of Australia has begun to call this the children’s famine because there are about 1.2 million children at risk in southern Somalia, but 600,000 of those are now severely malnourished and need emergency intervention. So this is just such a compelling crisis that I think we are deciding that it’s worth running the risk of some diversion. We’ll do everything we can to avoid that, but the humanitarian need is compelling.
OPERATOR: And did that finish your question, sir?
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much.
OPERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Our next question comes from Dorothea Hahn. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for doing this. I – you have mentioned several times that you are going to move more aggressively into southern Somalia. I would like you to develop on that. And the other thing is whether this is to reassure the NGOs only about the fact that they are not going to be prosecuted in the U.S., or also that there will be additional security on the ground for them, and if that is the case, what kind of additional security that would be. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL TWO: The --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. So we have already and have been moving aggressively to provide additional assistance in close coordination with the international community. We’ve moved in additional food, we’ve moved to increase the number of health programs. The new development that we’re talking about today is simply to provide additional flexibility and comfort to our NGO partners to enable them to move with the full speed that we – that they need to move as well.
OPERATOR: And does that finish the question?
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Okay. Thank you. And at this time, I’m showing no further questions from the phone lines.
STAFF: Okay. Thank you very much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. Thanks, guys.
OPERATOR: I’m sorry. We do have one more question. Would you like to take that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Sure.
OPERATOR: Okay. Lily Hough, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I just had two really quick questions. I know that the U.S. just made a commitment to – I want to say some – over 28 – or 28 billion to the UN’s pledge for – or to the UN’s request for more funds for Somalia. But I was under the impression that the U.S.’s funds to Somalia have decreased pretty rapidly over the last two years, and I was wondering if that – if you could give – if there was any reason for that, if that had anything to do with the fact that many parts of that area are controlled by an al-Qaida linked regime.
And my second question was – I just wanted to clarify one other thing. I know that USAID has said on the record that they were instructing UNICEF and the World Food Program a while back not to provide any humanitarian assistance or relief to areas controlled by al-Shabaab. And I was wondering, officially, when those restrictions were lifted because it sounds like now you’re allowing a little bit more flexible and creative ways to get aid into areas that were previously under al-Shabaab’s control, and it sounded like they were a little bit off limits to humanitarian organizations. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: So on the funding levels, as I mentioned earlier, starting January 2010, the WFP and most of the large international NGOs suspended operations in the south because the operating conditions just became too difficult on the ground, too insecure, too many impediments to delivering effective assistance. So as a result, our budget (inaudible) down significantly.
(Inaudible) prior to the announcement of the $28 million, we had already provided about $59 million, as well as our development assistance in the north – northern areas of Somalia. And with this new announcement, we’ve now – we’re now at 80 million inside Somalia, which is part of a Horn-wide assistance package of $459 million that is enabling us to reach 4.6 million people throughout the Horn. By looking at what else (inaudible) we can (inaudible) in Somalia, and are working with all our partners to do so.
WFP is just now looking to get back into the south, after having been gone since January 2010. And we’re fully supportive and have been working with them over the past several months in order to get them back in there as quickly as possible. But it was because of some of the operating environment (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just add on very quickly that the U.S. Government has never prohibited aid to people in need inside of Somalia. Our concern has been fixed on precluding terrorist organizations, armed groups, including al-Shabaab, from profiting from our humanitarian assistance. So I think that’s an important distinction to make.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And we do have one last question from Nicole Gaouette. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. I’m sorry if someone has already asked this question. I got on a tiny bit late. But this new guidance, just a little technical question: Did you issue it today? Is it effective immediately? Where can people see it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: This is [Senior Administration Official Three] from [Agency Withheld]. I can try to take that one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: We – the expansion of this policy is within the last couple of days. We don’t disclose or release licenses from [Agency Withheld] to the public, the licenses for State and USAID, but it is – they are able to undertake all the expansions that have been discussed on this call now. So that’s what’s underway.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: And let me just jump in and remind any of you who may have come in a little bit late that this has been a briefing on background. And any attribution should be to Senior Administration Officials. Thanks for your understanding on that.