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UN probe after aid stolen from Somalia refugees

By Jonathan Rugman

Updated on 15 June 2009

The head of the UN's £580m aid operation in Somalia has launched an inquiry after Channel 4 News revealed that thousands of sacks of food have been diverted from refugees and sold by Somali businessmen on the open market.

Somali refugee (credit: Reuters)

An investigation by tonight's programme shows piles of maize, wheat and cooking oil - clearly marked "not for re-sale" and bearing the UN World Food Programme (WFP) logo - for sale from 10 warehouses and 15 shops in the main market of the capital, Mogadishu.

Over 45,000 tons of WFP food are shipped to Somalia from Kenya every month. It was attacks on food convoys by Somali pirates which first prompted the deployment of an international naval flotilla, currently patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

But although Somali pirates have caught the world's attention and imagination, Somalia itself is so dangerous that the diversion of aid convoys inland has gone almost completely hidden from the outside world.

"We buy aid from WFP staff directly or from people they employ" a market trader tells Channel 4 News. "They take us to the warehouses used by the WFP and let us load our lorries. The goods are freely available and you can buy as much as you like, but we usually buy no more than 500 to 1,000 sacks at a time. Just a ton or half a ton a day can be shifted more discreetly."

That food could hardly be more needed. Over a million people have been driven from their homes by fighting, including 117,000 people that have fled from Mogadishu's fighting in the last month according to the UN.

One in three Somali children are classified by the UN as malnourished. UN officials claim that civil war and the worst drought in a decade have created "near-famine conditions", with Somalia ranking alongside Darfur as the worst humanitarian emergency anywhere in the world.

The WFP is tasked with feeding 3.5 million Somalis - almost half the entire population - and is struggling to overcome an operational shortfall of over $84m (£51m) over the next six months.

Britain gave the WFP £9m for Somalia last year through the Department for International Development (DFID) and is now weighing up whether to give more.

Inside the Afgoye corridor

Read Jonathan Rugman's blog on how the team put together this report.
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"Fictional refugee camps"

Yet a market trader describes to Channel 4 News how he invents fictional refugee camps, which are then allocated food which he can sell. "You go to the WFP office and fill in an application form to create a camp" he says. "When we receive the food, we give out some, and then divide the rest between ourselves and the WFP guys, who negotiated the deal."

We took the findings of our investigation to Mark Bowden, the former British diplomat who is now the UN's humanitarian coordinator for Somalia: "It is extremely disturbing and potentially disruptive of the aid programme" he said, urging the WFP to investigate as a "high priority".

"Somalia is probably the most complex and difficult humanitarian crisis the world is facing. I think that there is transparency in the operation....but allegations of diversion are very worrying."

Mr Bowden admits that "thousands" of sacks were stolen earlier this year in a "major incident of diversion", but says the transport contractor responsible was forced to reimburse the cost. In April the Somali government complained to Bowden about bags openly for sale in Mogadishu's Bakhara market.

Many of the sacks for sale are marked "from the American people", with the US government's aid agency, USAID, funding food and humanitarian assistance for Somalia to the tune of $274m (£168m) last year.

Peter Goossens, the WFP's Somalia Director, describes food for sale as a "minor phenomenon".

"There is no big corruption going on," he claims. "Relative to the environment, we are doing a very good job. And the donors know it."

The WFP accepts that so-called "gatekeepers" - often powerful Somali clans - may siphon off aid after it reaches the camps, but it rejects claims that WFP staff are party to corruption. WFP truck drivers are docked money from a Nairobi-based bank account if they fail to deliver.

In relation to the claims of fictional camps the WFP responded that it had never heard of such camps and questioned whether the word of the traders could be trusted.

Mr Goossens maintains that the vast majority of the food reaches those who need it. "We do post-distribution monitoring" says Mr Goossens, claiming his staff numbers have doubled in the past year and that he would know if large amounts of aid were going astray. "We have absolutely not lost control."

A statement from the WFP said:

"The World Food Programme takes any allegation of food diversion extremely seriously and we rigorously investigate all allegations that are drawn to our attention.

WFP has been ever-present in Somalia throughout this recent turbulent period of its history. This year alone, we expect to reach more than 3.5 million people with vital food assistance.

We have maintained our supply lines to the hungry overcoming obstacles ranging from pirates on the seas off the coast of Somalia, to insecurity and attacks on our staff on the ground.

In the past 12 months, WFP has lost four staff members who were killed while carrying out the life-saving work of bringing food to the hungry.

Despite the continuing threat of violence WFP is committed to maintaining its presence in Somalia and delivering food transparently and efficiently to those who need it most."

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