The UN’s?World Food Programme?(WFP) has rejected as implausible a report?of widespread food aid theft in?Somalia, where more than 3.2 million people are relying on a massive international relief operation.
Associated Press claimed that?vast piles of food bearing stamps from the WFP, the US government aid arm US Aid, the Japanese government and the Kuwaiti government are for sale in Mogadishu markets. AP said it found eight sites where thousands of sacks of food aid were being sold in bulk. Other food aid was also for sale in numerous smaller stores, it was reported. Among the items allegedly being sold were Kuwaiti dates and biscuits, corn, grain, and Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut butter designed for starving children.
However, according to WFP, the key player in the relief effort for Somalia, early estimates based on the evidence provided by AP suggest the diversion of food aid amounts to about 1% of food assistance the organization is bringing through Mogadishu. WFP is shipping 5,000 tons a month of food aid into Mogadishu.
“From our perspective, the scale of theft alleged is implausible,” said Greg Barrow, a WFP spokesman in Rome. “The scale of theft suggested would require a logistical operation comparable in size to what we are doing in Mogadishu.”
For the past two weeks, planeloads of aid from the UN, Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries have been arriving in the Somali capital almost daily. Supplies by ship are also on the way. Five areas of Somalia are officially in a state of?famine, and the rest of southern Somalia could follow within the next four to six weeks, according to the UN.
Nearly half of Somalia’s population need emergency food aid amid the worst drought in the Horn of?Africa?for 60 years, which has come on top of a long-running civil war.
The Islamist insurgents, al-Shabaab, announced their withdrawal from Mogadishu earlier this month, but the move is not expected to end insecurity in the Somali capital. Some 2.8 million people are in the south, where al-Shabaab is at its strongest. The group’s hardline elements oppose the presence of most western aid agencies in areas under their control.
Somalia is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for relief groups. Aside from al-Shabaab, they also have to contend with an ineffective transitional government riven by clan rivalries. A Human Rights Watch report on Monday?accused all sides involved in the conflict of contributing to Somalia’s humanitarian catastrophe?by committing serious violations of the laws of war.
This is not the first case when food and other needed supplies have been ?diverted? away from Somalis who need them.
Back in the years 1991 to 1992, when a famine struck Somalia, warlords and extreme militia-men often stole the food deliveries in significant enough numbers to provoke military involvement from other countries such as the US.
“They tell us they will keep it for us and force us to give them our food,” said refugee Halima Sheikh Abdi. “We can’t refuse to cooperate because if we do, they will force us out of the camp, and then you don’t know what to do and eat. It’s happened to many people already.”
The U.N. says more than 3.2 million Somalis ? nearly half the population ? need food aid after a severe drought that has been complicated by Somalia’s long-running war. More than 450,000 Somalis live in famine zones controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants, where aid is difficult to deliver. The U.S. says 29,000 Somali children under age 5 already have died.
WFP rarely allows its staff outside the African Union’s heavily fortified main base at the airport and relies on a network of Somali aid agencies to distribute its food. The organization said it had uncovered possible theft of food aid through its monitoring systems and had launched investigations. It noted that it had put in place strengthened and rigorous monitoring and controls for its relief operations, but ? given the lack of access to some areas because of security concerns and restrictions ? humanitarian supply lines remained highly vulnerable to looting, attacks and diversion by armed groups.
WFP condemned any diversion of “even the smallest amount of food from starving and vulnerable Somalis”.
International officials have long expected some of the food aid pouring into Somalia to disappear. But the sheer scale of the theft calls into question the aid groups’ ability to reach the starving. It also raises concerns about the ability of aid agencies and the Somali government to fight corruption, and whether diverted aid is fueling Somalia’s 20-year civil war.
“While helping starving people, you are also feeding the power groups that make a business out of the disaster,” said Joakim Gundel, who heads Katuni Consult, a Nairobi-based company often asked to evaluate international aid efforts in? Somalia. “You’re saving people’s lives today so they can die tomorrow.”
An official in Mogadishu with extensive knowledge of the food trade said he believes a massive amount of aid is being stolen ? perhaps up to half of recent aid deliveries. The percentage had been lower, he said, but in recent weeks the flood of aid into the capital with little or no controls has created a bonanza for businessmen.
A Somali government spokesman, Abdirahman Omar Osman, said the government does not believe food aid is being stolen on a large scale, but promised that, if such reports come to light, the government “will do everything in our power” to bring action in a military court.
AP said its investigation found evidence that WFP is relying on a contractor, Abdulqadir Mohamed Nur, also known as Enow, who was blamed for diverting large amounts of food aid in a 2010 UN report. Barrow denied this was the case, however.
“We are not relying on him, we are not using him,” he said.
At one of the sites for stolen food aid ? the former water agency building at a location called “Kilometer Five” ? about a dozen corrugated iron sheds are stacked with sacks of food aid. Outside, women sell food from open 110-pound (50-kilogram) sacks, and traders load the food onto carts or vehicles under the indifferent eyes of local officials.
The WFP emphasized that it has “strong controls … in place” in Somalia, where it cited risks in delivering food in a “dangerous, lawless, and conflict-ridden environment.”
Gundel, the consultant, said aid agencies hadn’t learned many lessons from the 1992 famine, when hundreds of thousands died and aid shipments were systematically looted, leading to the U.S. military intervention.
“People need to know the history here,” he said. “They have to make sure the right infrastructure is in place before they start giving out aid. If you are bringing food into Somalia it will always be a bone of contention.”
In the short term, he said, aid agencies should diversify their distribution networks, conduct frequent random spot checks on partners, and organize in communities where they work ? but before an emergency occurs. “It’s going to be very, very hard to do now,” he added.
At the Badbado camp, Ali Said Nur said he was also a victim of food thefts. He said he twice received two sacks of maize, but each time was forced to give one to the camp leader.
“You don’t have a choice. You have to simply give without an argument to be able to stay here,” he said.
The UN says more than 12 million people across the Horn are in need of food aid, including more than three million in Somalia.
Sources: Guardian, Startribune, Inewp