Will Somalia suffer from the US debt ceiling deal?

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For the people of Somalia — suffering through 20 years of chaos and now the worst drought and famine in 60 years — an al-Qaeda-linked rebel insurgency has blocked badly needed aid from reaching starving refugees.

Since January, nearly 170,000 refugees have poured into the camps — with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 now fleeing to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya each day. Torrential downpours are only worsening the conditions.

And for Somalis observing this holy month of Ramadan, fasting will prove particularly difficult. In all, about 11.6 million people in the Horn of Africa are impacted — due to drought, displacement and high food prices. And tens of thousands have died, according to UN estimates. And while Somalia has been affected the most, parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda have been hit as well.

If some lawmakers have their way, the U.S. will be ill-equipped to respond to this and other humanitarian crises in Africa.

In the U.S., during a time of economic distress, a drive among Republican Congressional leaders to reduce the nation’s debt burden by slashing domestic spending has extended to foreign aid expenditures. As international aid groups such as the Red Cross intensify their relief efforts with a pledge of $1 million — and Somali-American communities seek creative ways to raise funds for their people back home — Republican lawmakers are headed in the opposite direction by seeking massive cuts to international assistance programs. Critics in the nonprofit relief and diplomatic communities claim the proposed cuts are ill-timed and immoral, and could compromise America’s standing in the world.

A House Appropriations subcommittee approved the plan, which would cut foreign aid by 11 percent. Highlights of the measure include a 27 percent decrease in USAID funding, from $1.3 billion this year to $982.5 million. International disaster assistance would be reduced 12 percent to $758 million. Development assistance would suffer an 18 percent drop to $2.1 billion, while poverty-focused international development and humanitarian assistance would experience a 13 percent cut to $13.95 billion.

In addition, plan would reinstate the “Global Gag rule” that blocks federal aid to any agency that performs abortion or provides information or advice on abortion procedures. The rule, which health advocates say also undermines efforts at comprehensive health care, forced the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana to shut down 40 percent of its operations, lay off staff and cut crucial services. This defunding led to an increased in botched abortions. Obama repealed the rule in 2009.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services said the budget proposal contains “morally unacceptable, even deadly cuts to poverty-focused humanitarian and development assistance.”

“These cuts will not only harm U.S. national interests, they will have a huge impact on the lives of those who are already marginalized in the poorest corners of the earth,” said Samuel A. Worthington, the head of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs. “The argument that a nation with an annual GDP of $14.6 trillion cannot afford to invest a fraction of 1 percent of that to proactively work to build a safer, more prosperous world, and to fully fund desperately needed humanitarian activity, is simply false,” he added.

“With the worst drought in 60 years hitting parts of the Horn of Africa, these cuts amount to the U.S. turning its back on its own strategic interests and walking away from long held international commitments. For America’s own good and for those around the world who look to the U.S. for leadership, we need to do better,” said Worthington.

According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Republican bill imposes “onerous restrictions” on foreign aid, and “would be debilitating to my efforts to carry out a considered foreign policy and diplomacy, and to use foreign assistance strategically to that end.”

Similarly, former secretary Madeleine Albright said that the current obsession with budget cuts in Washington is undermining America’s moral position. “When we’re talking about the fact that many of the problems we have don’t have military solutions, but political and diplomatic ones, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said.

Albright added, “It’s very hard to deal with all of the foreign policy problems that are out there today, really hard, and especially with the constraints that exist,” she said. “The State Department budget — in comparison to the Defense Department’s — is small, which is ludicrous. The budget of the Defense Department is more than $670 billion dollars, and State’s is less than $50 billion.”Meanwhile, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asserted that U.S. foreign aid “is not a welfare program” for corrupt regimes that rely on America as a “sugar daddy.” “U.S. taxpayer dollars should not be going to terrorist organizations or to governments that have in them members of terrorist organizations and are not advancing the causes of freedom and liberty and American interests throughout the world,” the congresswoman added.

Given the risk of a rejection by the Democratic-controlled Senate and a possible veto from President Obama, the fate of the measure remains uncertain.

News of the proposed budget cuts comes on the heels of a series of hearings held by Rep. Peter King (R-New York) on Islamic extremism, with a particular focus on the recruitment of Somali-American youth by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate group based in Somalia that runs most of the country. King, who chairs the House committee on Homeland Security, says the group has recruited more than 40 Muslim Americans, most of them Somali Americans residing in Minnesota.

Africa receives $11 billion in aid from the U.S., and that amount in loans from the World Bank. Some observers dismiss the continent as a basket case, arguing that aid is a failing policy that is holding the continent back. Rather than waste billions of dollars lining the pockets of Africa’s elites, they submit, the U.S. and others should encourage private investment and entrepreneurship, in order to bolster Africa’s emerging middle class and create economic growth. This, they argue, would also create new markets for American exports, bring more jobs to the U.S, and establish new trading partners as a source of low-cost imports.

George Ayittey, a Ghanian economist and a professor of economics at American University, says that “Africa is poor because she is not free,” as he rails against African dictators who have replaced colonial powers. He speaks of the “Cheetah Generation,” a new group of Africans that takes the future into their own hands without waiting for direction from government. The “Hippo Generation,” on the other hand, complains about colonialism yet does nothing to change it.

“There are a couple of misconceptions about aid that we need to clear up. First of all, aid, foreign aid, is not free. It is a very soft loan, which is given to a government at concessional rates,” Ayitttey said in a 2007 debate on NPR. “Now, the second thing about aid is that aid is tied. Eighty percent of U.S. aid to Africa is spent right here in America — on American contractors, American suppliers, and so forth. French aid is even worse….Now, we’re not suggesting now don’t help Africa. But if you want to help Africa, folks, please, for Pete’s sake, ask the Africans what they want. Don’t assume that you know better than the Africans. What Africans want — three things: reform, reform, reform.”

Ayittey believes that America and the World Bank should help Africans build institutions to foster economic growth, such as an independent press and judiciary, an independent commission to administer free and fair elections, an independent central bank, a neutral military to protect the people, and a capable and professional civil service system.

A long history of the U.S. propping up dictators in Africa and elsewhere is well documented, and still disease and famine continue to plague these populations. On the other hand, proponents of aid would argue, there are people in dire need of relief now. Given Africa’s levels of poverty, a little bit of aid will go a long way. Besides, they would ask, what would the alternative to aid look like?

C. Payne Lucas, co-founder and former president of Africare, concedes there have been problems with aid to Africa, but maintains that help from the American community and the development community is crucial. “No, aid is (currently) not right, but we have an opportunity to change it. One thing we have learned over the years: Our programs must be owned by Africans, they must be African-led, they must be sustainable and they must be accountable,” he said.

And Gayle Smith, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, says that development is key: “And at the end of the day, the United States as a government, citizens of the United States, private companies in the United States, philanthropists in the United States, as around the rest of the world, I believe, have a responsibility and an interest in promoting development. I think it is a moral interest. I think it’s an economic interest. I think it’s a security interest. I think it has everything to do as well with our leadership.”

Human rights advocates have criticized the Obama administration for taking an interest in Somalia only within the context of military action and the war on terror. This is evidenced by the U.S. expansion of drone strikes — to fight al-Qaeda forces in Yemen — into Somalia. And America’s Cold War-era support of Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre eventually led to a bloody civil war in 1991 and the appalling socioeconomic problems Somalia faces today.

Now, say activists, the U.S. has an opportunity to channel some its military efforts into relieving that nation’s humanitarian crisis, and provide “carrots of development” that create political instability. Such measures will allow Somali men to change their way of thinking, and look to outlets other than al-Shabaab to escape their suffering.

“The current government in Somalia lacks the ability to protect the interests of its people, and the people recognize its inept ability to legitimately provide the services and protection they need as citizens. By increasing U.S. funded humanitarian aid to the region, international leaders can also hope to reduce the desperate circumstances people find themselves under on a daily basis in Somalia,” said Kathryn Staples of Africa Action.

“In doing so, recruitment by extremist groups sympathizing with their plight may be reduced as the citizens see they have different options to improve their lives that do not involve joining a terrorist organization.”

Emerging as an “elephant in the room” concerning the debate over African aid and investment is the land grab for Africa, also called recolonization. One think tank has learned that American universities, working with British hedge funds and European speculators, have bought vast amounts of African farmland since the 2009 financial crash — 148 million acres (60 million hectares), the size of France.

Such a development, according to researchers at the Oakland Institute, has driven farmers off of their land to make way for agribusiness and industrial farming projects. This, on a continent that is no stranger to economic exploitation and hostile takeovers.

Other wealthy nations such as China, South Korea, India and Saudi Arabia, according to the Worldwatch Institute, are buying up the best African land to meet their food needs. About 70 percent of the demand for farmland is in Africa, where land prices are low and communal ownership makes farmers vulnerable. Sometimes governments have sold the land without the farmers even knowing it.

Further, local produce is exploited for export without benefit to the local populations, ad of benefit to a small local elite. Not only is there little discussion of protecting local populations — whose livelihoods and food security are threatened by the land grab — but the damage may have already been done in terms of increased hunger in Africa.

For example, Guenter Nooke, Germany’s Africa policy coordinator has pointed to China’s practice of gobbling up land in the Horn of Africa as a cause of the drought. Noting that “this catastrophe is also man-made,” Nooke said that Chinese export-based agribusiness projects can lead to “major social conflicts in Africa when small farmers have their land and thus their livelihoods taken away.”

The Guardian estimates that one million Chines farmers are in Africa. China denies it is buying such land, and as offered $14 million in food assistance to countries affected by the drought. Seeking raw materials to sustain its economic boom and new markets for its goods, China buys a third of its oil from Africa, and has spent billions building and acquiring pipelines, mines, factories and railways throughout the continent.

Meanwhile, UN humanitarian agencies have requested $1.6 billion to overcome the drought and stop the famine from spreading. But Andrew Mitchell, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, called the response by developed countries to the crisis “derisory and dangerously inadequate.”

Proposed cuts in U.S. foreign aid would hinder America’s ability to effectively assist in what has become the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis.