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The global aid industry has made a core group fabulously wealthy, writes Rasna Warah.

In September 2008, a food aid convoy operated by a wealthy Somali businessman and his wife was allegedly looted by an armed group in northern Somalia.

The owner of the company operating the convoy blamed the Union of Islamic Courts for the incident, but independent Somali and international sources told investigators from the Monitoring Group on Somalia that the attack was probably staged, and the food had, in fact, been diverted for sale.

The Monitoring Group on Somalia – an entity mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor arms embargo violations in Somalia – presented the findings of its investigations to the United Nations Security Council in March 2010.

The report stated that the World Food Programme, the single largest provider of food aid in Somalia, had supplied 80 per cent of transport contracts worth roughly $160 million to three Somali businessmen who operated a monopolistic cartel in Somalia, and who were probably involved in the diversion of food aid.

Sources interviewed by the Monitoring Group estimated that up to 50 per cent of food aid was regularly diverted, not just by transport companies, but by WFP personnel and non-governmental organisations operating in Somalia, including one founded by the wife of one of the businessmen belonging to the transport cartel.

The Monitoring Group also suggested that one of the transporters belonging to the cartel had links to the Union of Islamic Courts, which raised questions about whether food aid was being used to finance armed opposition groups.

The Group urged the UN Secretary-General to initiate “a genuinely independent investigation of the WFP Somalia country office, with authority to investigate contracting procedures and practice” and recommended that “WFP revise its internal procedures to truly diversify the issuance of contracts”.

WFP denied most of the allegations made in the Monitoring Group’s report, but promised not to engage the transport contractors named in the report, and to widen its pool of contractors to encourage competition.

However, an Associated Press investigation into the food aid currently being delivered to Somalia has found that WFP is still relying on at least one of the transport ers for food aid deliveries.

What’s more, AP found thousands of food sacks belonging to WFP, and the US and Japanese governments being sold in Mogadishu’s markets.

In an article published this month, AP revealed that it found eight sites in the capital where food aid was being sold. Among the items were maize, grain and Plumpy’nut, a fortified peanut butter designed for malnourished children.

The article quoted an official in Mogadishu who believes that up to half of the food aid being sent to Somalia is stolen by unscrupulous businessmen.

He claimed that before the current flood of food aid, the proportion of food stolen was probably smaller but “in recent weeks, the flood of aid into the capital with little or no controls has created a bonanza for businessmen”.

Predictably, WFP has denied the findings of the AP investigation and claims that “the scale of theft alleged is implausible” and that only 1 per cent of food aid to Somalia is being diverted, a claim supported by the Somali government, even though AP has published photos showing sacks of food aid being sold in Mogadishu markets.

This particular story did not get as much publicity as one would expect, perhaps because it has been overshadowed by the calls for food aid orchestrated by aid agencies who rely on donors to sustain their operations.

If governments, individuals and corporations donating to humanitarian relief efforts and charities discover that much of the food they are paying for is stolen or diverted, they may not be so willing to give so generously.

The food aid industry, not just in Somalia, but in other parts of the world, is fraught with scandals, yet there is hardly any attempt by donors, or even journalists, to report the ugly face of the thriving industry. It is so much easier to look the other way and pat yourself on the back for doing something for starving people.

Yet, if one dares to look deeply, one will find that food aid is a multi-billion dollar business which has helped a small group to become fabulously wealthy on the backs of starving people.


* This article was first published by The Nation.
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