Since the Pilgrims, a diverse flood of people have come to America in search of a better life and a chance to snag the ever coveted and somewhat elusive American Dream. For centuries, boats have crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific carrying those who hope to work their way up, and maybe help those back home, too.
The smarty-pants technical word for “sending help back home” is known as “remittance”. The International Monetary Fund defines a remittance as “[an] international transfers of funds sent by migrant workers from the country where they are working to people in the country from which they came.” Remittances come from highly developed nations such as the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, and France, among others. Monies are sent to underdeveloped nations from migrant workers who desperately try to support family and friends back home.
Perhaps in no place are these payments more important than in the African country of Somalia. According to the World Bank, this is a nation that has an average life expectancy of 55 years, where only 27% of school aged kids actually attend school, and only 9% of the rural population has access to clean water. 40% of Somalis directly rely on remittance payments, and these remittances contribute 50% of the country’s gross national income.
Thanks to the United States government, this is the place that will no longer receive any remittances of any kind from America.
What’s the deal here? The Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) put some hard-core pressure on the last major bank processing remittances to Somalia to fold up shop, apparently because of the potential for some of the remittance money to end up in the hands of national terrorists. Well, no duh, there is a potential for money to end up in the hands of…pretty much everyone. When remittance money is 50% of your national income, it is probably going to end up everywhere as explained by George Monbiot of the Guardian:
“It’s true that some of [the money] might [end up terrorist coffers], just as some resources in any nation will find their way into the hands of criminals (ask HSBC). So why don’t we shut down the phone networks to hamper terrorism? Why don’t we ban agriculture in case fertiliser is used to make explosives? Why don’t we stop all the clocks to prevent armed gangs from planning their next atrocity?”
But that money mostly is going to be used by the relative of the American migrant worker to buy food, and then by the farmer to fix his roof, and then by the roof repairman to buy a soda, and so on and so on. That’s how economies work. And yeah, somewhere down the line a few bucks might fall into the hands of terrorists, and that is far from ideal, but what is even less ideal is a huge chunk of the 35% of Somali GDP that relies on remittances evaporating overnight. And even if you aren’t a bleeding heart liberal egghead like me, from a practical standpoint, the approaching poverty and desperation is going to benefit terror organizations far more than they may or may not have gained via remittance payments.
This is an example of the United States Treasury Department (which supervises the OCC) missing the forest for the trees. Yes, we all want to prevent terrorism. Yes, Al-Shabab — the terrorist group in question — is a horrendous organization responsible for terrible crimes that need to be stopped. Yes, in the perfect world the somewhat sketchy “hawala” money handlers that transfer much of the remittance money probably wouldn’t exist, but this isn’t the perfect world. Rather, this is a broken world filled with starving, dehydrated, malnourished people who are being kept alive perhaps only by payments of their friends and family who work in America and other industrialized nations to support them. Take away that support and you are giving a bunch of desperate people little choice but to turn to extremists for survival.
Paraphrasing a quote of Barack Obama, Americans are united by the fact that we all came here from some place else. Some have had ancestors here since the American Revolution, while others may be first or second generation immigrants, and others still may have just recently arrived with the goal of working their hardest to send dire financial aid to their families remaining in countries that are not as privileged as our own. Denying them that right to spread hope to the darkest corners of the world seems very counterintuitive to a nation that once greeted her new citizens with a statue that proclaimed, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”