Global Policy Forum

Contractors are Accused in Large-Scale Theft of Food Aid in Somalia


The UN World Food Program (WFP) is investigating allegations that corrupt contractors have stolen thousands of sacks of grain and other supplies intended for Somalian famine victims.  Food theft has occurred in Somalia since the early 90s, causing aid workers to coin the term “traditional distribution” to describe when food aid is stolen to be sold on the black market.  Though this New York Times article largely criticizes al-Shabab and the new Somalian transitional government for active participation (and failed prevention) in this large scale food theft, this is only a part of the picture. The root causes of the famine are largely geopolitical, as the Somali people have been made vulnerable to exhausted food resources due to continuous military and political interventions in the region (particularly by Ethiopia, the AU, and the US).

By Jeffrey Gettleman

August 16, 2011

Beyond freelance gunmen, Islamist militants, cholera, malaria, measles and the staggering needs of hundreds of thousands of starving children, aid agencies scrambling to address Somalia’s famine now may have another problem to reckon with: the wholesale theft of food aid.

As it scales up its operations in Somalia, the United Nations World Food Program is investigating allegations that thousands of sacks of grain and other supplies intended for famine victims have been stolen by unscrupulous businessmen and then sold on the open market for a profit.

“We’re looking into this,” Greg Barrow, a spokesman for the World Food Program, said Tuesday.

He said the World Food Program was first alerted several months ago to the possibility of stolen food aid in the capital, Mogadishu, but added that he did not want to provide specifics, in the event that the allegations were baseless.

Few experienced aid workers believe that all, or even close to all, of the emergency food in Somalia reaches the people it was intended for. Because much of Somalia has been mired in chaos and violence for the past 20 years, large aid organizations tend not to base their own staff members there and instead appoint local groups to monitor aid deliveries, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Last year, United Nations investigators said that a web of corrupt contractors and their cronies were skimming off as much as half of the food aid, though later internal United Nations investigations did not find evidence to support that. Back in 1991 and 1992, during Somalia’s last famine, warlords and their militias were notorious for commandeering food shipments.

“This is the price of doing business in Somalia,” said one aid official who worked in Somalia in the 1990s but was not authorized by his organization to speak publicly. “You’re always going to have seepage.”

He said that 15 to 20 percent of losses was what “everyone learned to live with in 1991 and 1992” and that aid workers even coined a term to euphemize the theft — “traditional distribution” — because even though the food was getting looted, it still ended up in local markets, having the ancillary effect of reducing overall food prices and making food more affordable for the poor.

One way the United Nations and its local partners are trying to combat the pilfering of food is by serving individual portions of porridge at special centers, as opposed to just handing out sacks of grain. The World Food Program, which has said that it will not cut back on aid deliveries because of the allegations of theft, is also asking contractors to pay them back for any food that was not delivered.

Mark Bowden, the head of United Nations humanitarian operations in Somalia, said the stealing of food aid was a longstanding — and deeply rooted — problem.

“I’m afraid it’s not new,” he said Tuesday. “The war economy means there is a very high dependence on the income that comes from humanitarian aid.”

What is especially troubling, other aid officials say, is that large-scale aid diversions may be happening in Mogadishu, the only part of Somalia that the transitional government controls, though loosely. The Shabab militant group abruptly withdrew from Mogadishu this month, saying it was shifting to guerrilla tactics, which essentially put the capital in government hands for the first time in years.

United Nations officials predict that the famine occurring in several areas of southern Somalia will soon spread, the consequence of one of the worst droughts in 60 years and relentless conflict. They say 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance and tens of thousands have already died, most of them children.

Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have fled into Kenya, Ethiopia and to camps in Mogadishu, where cholera and measles are preying upon a malnourished and immune-suppressed population. Cases of malaria are also on the rise, as storms hit Mogadishu and the rains pound down.

The transitional government has promised to do whatever it can to help famine victims and denies that large amounts of aid have recently been diverted, as first reported by The Associated Press on Monday.

Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s new Harvard-educated prime minister, said in a recent interview that the government was doing “a great job.”

“Were we ready for a drought of this magnitude? No,” he said. “But we acted quickly.”

However, undisciplined — and heavily armed — government soldiers continue to be a problem. This month, government soldiers battled each other to steal emergency food, killing half a dozen people in the middle of a camp for displaced people. A few days later, government troops looted shops in the Bakara market during one of their first days back in the market, which used to be controlled by the Shabab.

Many Somali analysts describe both the government and the Shabab as spent forces, though the Shabab still control most of the lower third of Somalia. The Shabab have forced out many of the biggest Western aid agencies, including the World Food Program, from their territories and blocked starving people from escaping the drought areas.

Mr. Bowden said that donors like the United States had been generous in contributing money for emergency assistance but that there was still a shortfall of half a billion dollars.


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