The European Union executive has temporarily suspended funding for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Somalia, after a U.N. investigation found widespread theft and misuse of aid meant to avert famine.
The suspension was communicated by two senior EU officials to Reuters on Monday, September 18.
The European Commission gave more than $7 million in aid to the WFP’s operations in Somalia in 2022. This is just a fraction of the donations of more than $1 billion WFP received, U.N. data shows.
EU member states gave much more money on a bilateral basis. It was not immediately clear whether any would also suspend aid.
Balazs Ujvari, a spokesman for the European Commission, neither confirmed nor denied specifically a temporary suspension but said: “So far, the EU has not been informed by its U.N. partners of a financial impact on EU-funded projects.
“Nevertheless, we will continue to monitor the situation and abide by our zero-tolerance approach to fraud, corruption, or misconduct.”
One senior EU official said the decision was taken after the U.N. investigation concluded that landowners, local authorities, members of the security forces and humanitarian workers were all involved in stealing aid intended for vulnerable people.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the aid would be restored after the WFP met additional conditions, such as vetting of partners on the ground in Somalia. The second senior EU official confirmed that.
A third source, also an EU official, said the Commission was “cooperating actively with WFP to resolve systemic defects” but said no aid was suspended at this stage.
The July 7 report, marked “strictly confidential,” was commissioned by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, according to a copy reviewed by Reuters.
Its contents were first published by Devex, a media outlet focused on international development.
IDPs ‘forced’ to cough up half of their aid
Devex cited internally displaced persons (IDPs) as saying they were coerced into paying up to half of the cash assistance they received to people in positions of power in the face of threats of eviction, arrest, or de-registration from beneficiary lists.
The European Commission contributes 10 million euros ($10.69 million) to Somalia and Ethiopia via the WFP, with the suspended funds covering part of that allocation, according to one of the senior EU officials.
The United States is by far Somalia’s biggest humanitarian donor. Last year, it contributed more than half of the $2.2 billion of funding that went to the humanitarian response there.
USAID spokesperson Jessica Jennings said in a statement the United States was working to understand the extent of the diversion and was “already taking steps to protect beneficiaries and ensure taxpayer money is used to benefit vulnerable persons in Somalia, as intended.”
The hands-on role of Somalia’s government in aid distribution makes donors uneasy
An official of the agency, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the situations in Ethiopia and Somalia were different. However, USAID was not planning to pause food assistance in the latter.
A United States congressional source said the decision to suspend aid in Somalia was, in part, related to the uniquely hands-on role of the federal government in distributing food assistance, which has long made donors uneasy.
“The widespread theft of food assistance in Ethiopia was abhorrent, but was also an opportunity to change the way it is provided,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Somali Disaster Management Office, which coordinates the government’s humanitarian response, said in a statement on Monday that Somali authorities were committed to investigating the U.N. report’s findings while adding that current aid delivery systems operate “outside of the government channels”.
Antonio Guterres’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Post-delivery aid diversion is ‘Widespread and Systemic’
Donors boosted funding to Somalia last year as humanitarian officials warned of a looming famine due to the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades.
Famine was averted, official data shows, but as many as 43,000 people, half of them children younger than five, died last year as a result of the drought, researchers estimate.
The U.N. report did not attempt to quantify the amount of aid diverted but said its findings “suggest that post-delivery aid diversion in Somalia is widespread and systemic”.
Investigators found aid diversion in all of the 55 IDP sites in Somalia from which they collected data, the report said. Some 3.8 million people are displaced in Somalia – one of the highest rates in the world.
Aid distribution has been a problem in Somalia for decades, complicated by weak government institutions, widespread insecurity stemming from an Islamist insurgency, and marginalization of minority clans.
Since revelations of aid theft during a 2011 famine, humanitarian agencies have converted most of their assistance to cash-based transfers that some officials have presented as less vulnerable to corruption.
Cash-based systems can also be exploited by ‘gatekeepers’
The U.N. report was the latest evidence that cash-based systems can be exploited too. It identified a variety of perpetrators, led by so-called “gatekeepers,” powerful individuals from dominant local clans.
These gatekeepers leverage their influence over access to campsites and food beneficiary lists to coerce payments from IDPs, the report said.
Members of security forces also play a role by intimidating and sometimes arresting those who refuse to pay. Some humanitarian workers also collude with gatekeepers to pocket stolen funds, the report said.
While famine has been averted for now, the report warned that inadequate humanitarian funding could imperil fragile progress.
Aid budgets are under strain globally, with just 36% funded to date of the $2.6 billion the U.N. says is needed this year for Somalia’s humanitarian response.