MOGADISHU // The World Food Programme said it has no plans to reduce aid to Somalia following allegations that international food shipments there were being stolen and sold on by fraudsters.
The World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said the agency was investigating alleged fraud but "there won't be any food reduction" after reports that food staples meant for starving Somalis were being stolen and sold in markets around the capital of Mogadishu.
Ms Berthiaume told reporters in Geneva yesterday that the WFP investigation so far had no evidence of a large-scale fraud scheme.
She said WFP brought 5,000 tons of food into Somalia every month, and that it would be implausible if half were diverted because "that would be a lot, and that would need a huge logistical operation". Earlier this week, an investigation found that sacks of grain, peanut butter snacks and other food staples meant for starving Somalis were being stolen and sold in markets, raising concerns that thieving businessmen were undermining international famine relief efforts in the country.
The WFP acknowledged for the first time that it had been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months and strongly condemned any diversion of "even the smallest amount of food from starving and vulnerable Somalis".
Underscoring the perilous security throughout the food distribution chain, donated food is not even safe once it has been given to the hungry in the makeshift camps popping up around the capital of Mogadishu. Families at the large, government-run Badbado camp, where several aid groups distribute food, said they were often forced to hand back aid after journalists had taken photos of them with it.
"They tell us they will keep it for us and force us to give them our food," said Halima Sheikh Abdi, a refugee. "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 UN 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 Qaeda-linked militants, where aid is difficult to deliver. The US says 29,000 Somali children under age 5 already have died.
International officials have long expected some of the food aid pouring into Somalia to disappear. But the sheer scale of the theft called into question the aid groups' ability to reach the starving. It also raised concerns about the ability of aid agencies and the Somali government to fight corruption, and whether diverted aid was fuelling 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."
For the past two weeks, planeloads of aid from the UN, Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries have been landing in Mogadishu almost daily. Boatloads more are on the way. There is no doubt that much of it is saving lives: hungry families line up for hot meals at feeding centres, and famished children eat free food while crouched among makeshift homes of ragged scraps of plastic.
The WFP Somalia country director Stefano Porretti said the agency's system of independent, third-party monitors uncovered allegations of possible food diversion. But he underscored how dangerous the work is: WFP has had 14 employees killed in Somalia since 2008.
"Monitoring food assistance in Somalia is a particularly dangerous process," Mr Porretti said.
In Mogadishu markets, vast piles of food are for sale with stamps on them from the WFP, the US government aid arm USAID, the Japanese government and the Kuwaiti government. An investigation by the Associated Press 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. Among the items being sold were Kuwaiti dates and biscuits, corn, grain, and Plumpy'nut - a fortified peanut butter designed for starving children.