MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A large amount of food sent by the U.N. to the Somali capital during last year's famine never reached the starving people it was intended for, an Associated Press investigation has found.
Some of the World Food Program supplies went to the black market, some to feed livestock. One warehouse full of rations was looted in its entirety by a Somali government official. And across the city, feeding sites handed out far less food than records indicate they should have.
The British government estimates between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in Somalia's famine, and the U.N. has requested $1.5 billion for Somalia this year, partly to prevent a return of famine.
The World Food Program provides much of Somalia's food aid, and the U.N. says donations of food and cash saved half a million lives in the second half of last year. In the chaos of a civil war, with the aid effort's own personnel at mortal risk merely for being associated with the West, orderly, corruption-free food distribution could never be guaranteed.
But AP's three-month investigation into sites providing hot meals to families in government-controlled Mogadishu reveals various shortcomings, some of which WFP says it is already addressing by changing procedures.
A critical problem was keeping track of supplies: WFP knew how much food was being shipped to the capital, but not how much was being cooked or how many people were showing up to eat it.
Barey Muse, a mother of three, illustrated the frustrations.
"My children are hungry but when I go here for food I must return empty-handed," she said last month, holding two large bowls outside a feeding site called Hodan.
The WFP had to design a flexible program so that families could use the nearest hot-meal center as they moved between neighborhoods to avoid fighting. The price of flexibility was less control over theft, officials acknowledge.
The AP, along with a network of seven Somali observers who for their safety cannot be identified, conducted more than 60 visits to 13 of the 21 sites where hot meals are prepared. From those visits, interviews with aid recipients and internal reports, it emerges that:
— Somali aid groups would cook and distribute at least 30 percent more food when expecting visits by journalists or WFP officials.
— Some food was trucked directly from an aid agency warehouse to the market to be sold for profit.
— WFP's independent monitors repeatedly sounded the alarm, saying relatives of Somali aid workers would receive large handouts while others went without. One of their reports spoke of supplies being fed to livestock.
— A Somali government official stole 74 metric tons of food, according to an internal WFP report obtained by AP.
Stefano Porretti, head of WFP's Somalia program, said feeding programs in Mogadishu were expanded rapidly in emergency conditions, and from October to January, WFP's independent monitoring was suspended.
"Changes to it (WFP procedures) are now being made," he said.
He said AP's research was done in that time frame, and that after AP's findings were shown to WFP, the U.N. body's new third-party monitor watched the sites closely for a week.
"The amount of food delivered is what is expected, and it is being cooked," Porretti said. "There is no diversion at the sites."
Somalia is perhaps the most dangerous country in the world for aid workers, who face kidnappings, suicide bombings and assassination. The hot meals program amounts to 8 percent of WFP operations in Somalia, and 17 of its staffers and partners, all Somalis, have been killed since 2008. Two were shot dead in December when they found a "ghost camp" which was said to have been set up to fool aid agencies into delivering food there.
Islamist insurgents from the group al-Shabab still held part of Mogadishu last July, when the U.N. announced that parts of Somalia were suffering from famine. The hunger crisis was blamed on a combination of drought, warfare and a refusal by the insurgents to grant some aid groups access to areas it controls.
By September, the U.N. said more than 100 children were dying every day. WFP was already working to protect its aid from thieves, partly by delivering hot meals that were difficult to resell and less likely to spark violent looting than large-scale distributions of dry rations. But while WFP knew how much food was being given to the hot meals program, it did not track how many people were receiving it.
When foreigners visit a WFP hot-meals site, the pots are always full and the centers teem with people. Once the visitors leave, things change, as the experience at a feeding center called Hodan illustrates.
During an official visit, Sorrdo, a local aid group acting for WFP, made 20 large pots of porridge for lunch. But a Somali woman with whom the AP kept in touch said that on ordinary days only nine to 13 pot loads were made. WFP said the Hodan site was feeding 7,000 people a day. But when the AP made an unannounced visit last month, a flustered supervisor said only 3,000 were being fed.
Another Somali woman, Halimo Mukhtar, said she sometimes saw supervisors at Hodan selling cart loads of supplies to traders to feed to livestock.
"Why do they say they give us food every day?" asked the mother of six, whose youngest child was strapped to her back. She had received nothing, she said, and her children would be hungry that night unless she went begging.
"The food we share between six people is not even enough for two," she said. "They sell our food to people to feed animals."
Another site, Wadajir, sits less than 200 yards (meters) from the airport base where WFP's international staff stay, and bustles with hundreds of people during official WFP visits. But when the AP visited the site run by Jumbo Peace and Development Organization last month, it was nearly deserted. Somali aid workers there appeared caught off guard. Two workers contradicted each other about how many people were being fed there, claimed a metal pot that could only hold about one bag of food held three bags, and that people usually came at 5 p.m. to be fed.
The site had closed at 1:30 p.m. on the previous day.
An AP translator overheard a worker named Sharif on a frantic phone call to his superior.
"Have they taken pictures?" the manager asked.
"No, no, we stopped them," said the worker, glancing over nervously as a journalist snapped photos of the almost empty site.
Keep the journalists outside and stop them from taking photos, the manager yelled; he was coming right over.
At another site an observer who tried to take pictures for the AP was immediately ejected, and staff insisted he delete the images. At some sites, an observer reported, cooked food was sold to livestock traders, sometimes directly by staff, and other times by recipients.
Many of the AP witness observations are corroborated in reports by Pbi2, the company that previously carried out independent monitoring for WFP.
A July report obtained by the AP said that at several sites run by Saacid, a Somali aid agency, "you will see good-looking beneficiaries ... who give the food to their animals and they are the ones who get served first and they are relatives of management."
"They load donkey carts of cooked food each day because they receive extra ratios and even sometimes they come back several times while they know that others don't get their ratio," the report said.
Tony Burns, Saacid director of operations, said it was "impossible" for cart loads of food to be carried off, though he acknowledged a small amount may have been used as animal feed. He said that once food was given away no one could control what became of it and that the problem has "never risen to serious levels."
Saacid is the biggest Somali aid agency in the capital. Until this month, it ran 16 out of 21 of WFP's hot-meal centers for families in partnership with the Danish Refugee Council. Saacid says it left the program because it was "inefficient."
One Pbi2 report alleges that Saacid brought extra people from another center to bump up the numbers when a WFP delegation visited the Howl-Wadaag center in July. Burns denied such an event ever happened. In Bondere, also run by Saacid, some people got 10 times their ration and others got nothing, the report said. Burns said some favoritism takes place in the lines and the group cannot curb it.
Saacid says that due to complex clan politics, visitors cannot visit sites unannounced. The AP, each time it tried a surprise visit, was quickly told to leave, and staff declined to give any information.
Pbi2's contract was not renewed in early October for reasons that neither it nor WFP would disclose. The company declined an interview.Following an August AP report about aid theft, when a journalist photographed convoys of trucks unloading food aid at the market, WFP assigned two investigators to look at the issue of food diversion. They have not yet issued a report.
The Somali government fired and jailed two district commissioners, one of whom was accused of looting the 74 tons of food from the warehouse. Both were later pardoned and freed.
Some critics of the overall aid effort go so far as to claim that it does more harm than good, because the influx of food and the associated looting feed Somalia's black-market war economy. The powerful in Somali society have little incentive to stop the suffering that brings in the aid — or to stop the violence that prevents it being monitored, said Linda Polman, author of "War Games," one of a growing number of books critical of aid dispensation in combat zones.
"The solutions are not easy," said Polman. "Aid organizations have a problem. It is difficult for them to be honest (about theft) because they will be punished. Donations will go down and donor governments will be angry. So it stays a well-kept secret," she said. "To change this you would have to change the whole aid system."
Porretti said that WFP did its best to keep donors updated about the risks of working in Somalia.
"Donor governments are updated regularly on the challenges we face working in complex and insecure places like Somalia," he said. "They are aware that WFP has to weigh these risks carefully against the danger that lives may be lost if we stop providing life-saving food assistance to vulnerable women and children in places like Mogadishu."
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