UN declares first famine in Africa for three decades as US withholds aid
Tens of millions of dollars in urgently-needed US aid for Somalia are being withheld even as parts of the country are set on Wednesday to be declared a famine zone.
Conditions in the country, hit first by war and then by drought, are so severe in some places what was an "emergency" has now tipped into a "catastrophe", the UN will say.
In parts of one of the two regions to be officially certified, 10 times the number of people are dying than the official threshold classifying famine. Tens of thousands are believed to have already have died in the south of the country.
The UN declaration will be the first in a series of "food crises" in the Horn of Africa, and the first time the term famine has officially been used since almost a million Ethiopians starved to death in 1984.
But Washington, the world's biggest donor to Somalia until 2009, is now barred from funding food appeals if its money risks "materially benefiting" terrorists.
The new rules, from the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, came into force after reports that al-Shabaab, Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked insurgents, were taxing food convoys, stealing supplies and threatening agencies' workers.
Since then, US aid spending in Somalia has fallen by 88 per cent, from more than £150m in 2008 to £13m this year.
By contrast, UN figures show that funding from other international donors including Britain has increased in the same period, largely channelled through local organisations and the few UN agencies still operating in southern Somalia.
That has still not been enough to avert the current disaster, said Jeremy Konyndyk, policy director with Mercy Corps in the US, which was affected by the anti-terror rules.
"Avoiding aid diversion is important, but the US's overzealous approach led to a damaging collapse in US humanitarian support to Somalia," he said.
"This has undermined humanitarian response and preparedness and other donors have been unable pick up the slack."
Oxfam, which warns on Wednesday of a half-billion pound "black hole" in funding for drought appeals for 11 million people across the Horn of Africa, said that the world had failed to respond quickly enough to what was a "predictable disaster".
"If more action had been taken earlier we would not now be at the stage where so many people are facing starvation," said Fran Equiza, Oxfam's regional director for the Horn of Africa.
Since Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee launched urgent appeals, more than £20m has been raised from individual donors.
The Government has pledged another £90m for what David Cameron called "the most catastrophic situation for a generation" in the Horn of Africa.
The scale of the outstanding need, however, meant that even "something very creative that has not happened before, like Live Aid" will not be enough, said a senior adviser to one British charity.
"It is only government level responses, from across all of the international community, that will have an impact now," he said.
The withdrawal of US funds for southern Somalia, coupled with al-Shabaab's long-held belligerence towards foreigners, were "now costing lives", said Mr Konyndyk of Mercy Corps.
He added: "The aid effort will remain totally inadequate if legal restrictions force the US to remain on the sidelines".
It is hoped that Wednesday's expected declaration of famine will spur Washington into a change of heart, and extend "good faith" deals that lift threats of prosecution of aid workers if future US aid is found to have been stolen by al-Shabaab.
Johnnie Carson, Hillary Clinton's deputy in charge of African affairs, said that Washington "had not and would not" talk to al-Shabaab.
He said, however, that the US was talking with organisations working in Somalia "see what their reception has been" since the Islamists' offer of an amnesty for aid deliveries last week.
"We are committed to doing all that we possibly can to assist the people of Somalia," he told The Daily Telegraph.
"The thing that we are clearly not trying to do is to allow food that is intended for victims to be siphoned off by an international terrorist group."
Some agencies, including Unicef, with support from Britain, have begun delivering airdropped supplies into Islamist-held areas.
However, mistrust of the Islamists is holding many back from increasing the scope of their operations in insurgent-held areas.
"We do have a very minimal presence," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, said in Geneva.
"We need significantly better access than we have at the moment to address an emergency of this scale."
Under international law, there is no mandated extra response which must follow from an "official" declaration of famine.
But it is hoped that the first official use of the term in Africa since Band Aid 27 years ago will stand as a "wake-up call" to governments, including some in Europe and almost all in Africa, who have so far failed to respond.
The definition of famine agreed by most British aid agencies and the UN is designed to be very precise in order to avoid it losing potency.
A five-stage technical classification system calculates when a series of indicators become so severe that a â humanitarian emergency' tips into famine/humanitarian catastrophe'.
For Phase 5, the most severe, death rates are two people per 10,000, 30 per cent or more of the population are acutely malnourished and needing special feeding, and people can access less than 4 litres of water and 2,100 kcal of food per day.
Mark Bowden, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, is expected to say today that two regions of the country's south, all under control of al-Shabaab, have reached the threshold. The regions are Lower Shabelle and Bakool.
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