RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now east, to the region known as the Horn of Africa. Somalia has been struggling with the effects of a drought that began two years ago, causing a famine that's affected millions of people. Aid groups from around the world have been pushing hard to get food and resources to the people who need them. But those efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war between Somalia's weak central government and the rebel group known as al-Shabaab.
Here to talk about the situation is Mark Bowden. He's the United Nations' Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia.
Mr. Bowden, welcome to the program.
MARK BOWDEN: Thank you.
MARTIN: You have been having a hard time getting aid into famine-stricken areas for a while. But just this past week, things seem to have gotten even worse. The head of a local food distribution charity was killed. It's suspected that al-Shabaab rebels were behind that killing. And also, this past week, the Red Cross suspended food distribution in parts of the country because al-Shabaab was blocking its convoys.
Help us understand why al-Shabaab rebels seem to be intentionally keeping aid away in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. How does this help them?
BOWDEN: Well, I think the Shabaab, they do have a sort of ideological feeling that food aid actually creates dependence in their areas. But also, I think their affairs from the Shabaab side that any association with Western organizations is actually part of an intelligence-gathering operation.
MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of how serious the famine is at this point?
BOWDEN: Well, the crisis in Somalia affects four million people, that's over 60 percent of the population need assistance. Amongst that there are a number of regions, they'll face famine conditions. Though the problem is that famine is is tech - we're using it as a technical term, where we're talking about very high levels of mortality; death rate of two adults per 10,000 per day, and very high levels of malnutrition.
By reducing that rate, we're bringing people out of famine but we're still dealing with a critical situation, where hundreds of thousands of people literally are still very much at risk of death.
MARTIN: You said that al-Shabaab maintains that accepting international aid somehow makes the population more dependent. Is the organization itself providing aid and humanitarian assistance to people who need it?
BOWDEN: Well, Shabaab had provided some assistance internally, yes. They have a zakat system, which is a tax on the better off to assist poorer groups. They set up their own drought committees. So there is some assistance taking place internally, but not enough to make the difference as needed to people's lives.
MARTIN: You are in the United States now. You recently met with leaders here to talk about American aid to Somalia. That has dried up in recent years. The U.S. has withdrawn some aid to the region for fears that al-Shabaab was taking a cut.
How do you reassure, not only lawmakers here in the United States, but in other Western partners - the United Kingdom - that if they give aid, it won't fall into the hands of al-Shabaab?
BOWDEN: Well, the U.S. has actually resumed its existence because they understand that we are facing a peculiar, extraordinary crisis in Somalia which requires extraordinary measures, and flexibility for everybody in responding to this.
MARTIN: Did you walk away from these meetings with a commitment from the U.S. government?
BOWDEN: Not exactly a commitment but I think an understanding. Certainly, I was reassured by the tone of our discussion and the level of interest and engagement. The U.S. is in the process of planning next year's priorities...
MARTIN: There's a budget conversation happening in Washington.
BOWDEN: Yeah. And I certainly felt reassured that they understood the criticality of need in Somalia and where the priorities lay.
MARTIN: How much are you asking for from the international community?
BOWDEN: We are asking for $1.5 billion this year, which sounds like an awful lot of money. And it is an awful lot of money. But last year, the humanitarian operations raised $1.3 billion and that's being mainly spent. It is expensive to address the needs of famine. But this year, what we're also trying to do is to help people who've been displaced get back to their lives, get back to the land and be able to farm and return to a normal life.
And that involves at least half a billion dollars in terms of restocking, providing cattle, sheep, goats and camels. Unless we do that we'll be in a difficult cycle of hardship year after year.
MARTIN: Mark Bowden is the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia.
Mr. Bowden, thanks so much for joining us.
BOWDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.