Food for Somalia’s starving being stolen

By Katharine Houreld
Associated Press / August 16, 2011

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MOGADISHU, Somalia - Sacks of grain and other food staples meant for starving Somalis are being stolen and sold in markets, raising concerns that thieving businessmen are undermining international famine relief efforts in this nearly lawless country.

The United Nations’ World Food Program acknowledged it has been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months and condemned any diversion of “even the smallest amount of food from starving and vulnerable Somalis.’’

The program said the “scale and intensity’’ of the crisis do not allow for a suspension of assistance, saying that doing so would lead to “many unnecessary deaths.’’

And the aid is not even safe once it has been distributed to families huddled in makeshift camps around the capital. Families at the large, government-run Badbado camp, where several aid groups have been distributing food, said they were often forced to hand back food after journalists had taken photos of them with it.

Ali Said Nur said he received two sacks of maize twice, 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 3.2 million Somalis, nearly half the population, need food 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 Qaeda-linked militants, where aid is difficult to deliver. The United States says 29,000 Somali children under age 5 have died.

The sheer scale of the theft calls into question aid groups’ ability to reach the starving. It also raises concerns about the willingness 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.’’

The World Food Program’s Stefano Porretti said the agency’s system of independent, third-party monitors uncovered allegations of possible food diversion. But he underscored how hazardous the work is: The program has had 14 employees killed in Somalia since 2008.

“Monitoring food assistance in Somalia is a particularly dangerous process,’’ Porretti said.

In Mogadishu markets, vast piles of food sacks are for sale with stamps on them from the World Food Program and the US and Japanese governments. The Associated Press found eight sites where aid food was being sold in bulk.

An official in Mogadishu with knowledge of the food trade said he believes a massive amount of aid is being stolen - perhaps up to half of aid deliveries - by unscrupulous businessmen.

Stealing food aid is not new in Somalia - it’s the main reason the US military got involved in Somalia during the 1992 famine. There are no indications that will happen again. top stories on Twitter

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