Corruption and diversion of food aid is pretty much guaranteed to make headlines. The juxtaposition of the evils of corruption with the idealistic humanitarian enterprise has a strong moral undertone. The natural reaction is to want to halt abuses to make sure that the right people get the food and that armed groups do not. But the reality of the power structures behind aid diversion means that finding solutions is anything but simple.
For people familiar with either humanitarian assistance or Somalia, diversion of food aid there comes as no surprise, though the 50% figure rings alarm bells. When delivering assistance in conflict zones, organisations already have the deck stacked against them in terms of corruption and the risk of diversion, contending with weak rule of law, endemic corruption, abject poverty and armed groups who wield significant power. Somalia is an extreme context, with lawless areas and an economy intricately tied into local power structures and the ongoing conflict. The economic ‘rules of the game’ are different than in Western countries, with a fine line between what is legal and illegal, what is corrupt and what is normal business. How contracts are awarded and how goods are transported in insecure areas often entails kickbacks and is, undoubtedly, influenced by powerful groups and individuals.
It would be naïve to think that the noble ambitions of humanitarian agencies like WFP makes them immune to these dynamics. It’s not very surprising that the leaked report noted that lucrative contracts for transporting food aid have been awarded to three of the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in Somalia. I heard one interviewer suggesting more independent contracting and follow-up, and WFP has indeed announced that it will stop working with those three contractors. This is an important step, but one that could disrupt aid deliveries. Any notion that there is a readily available pool of independent contractors immune to corruption and who are not tied into the conflict economy runs counter to an adequate political and economic understanding of the context.
Normally, aid agencies can reduce diversion risks by closely monitoring their assistance – ensuring that food deliveries are made and that the ‘right’ people receive the food. But strengthening monitoring poses immense challenges in a dangerous environment like Somalia, where agencies already contract out many functions to partners and transporters because of the security risks to staff. Suggestions that new actors monitor the others poses the question of who watches the watchers, and whether another organisation would increase accountability or just add new people who get a slice of the food aid pie. No one should lose sight of the dangers of delivering and monitoring food aid in Somalia. WFP offices have been attacked; staff and contractors have been murdered.
Given these factors, a certain amount of diversion of food aid is almost inevitable. Attention should, however, be focused on understanding the negative impacts of diversion compared to the impacts of reducing or suspending food aid, as well as how diversion realistically can be minimised. This requires open discussions among staff and partners about corruption and diversion. Yet corruption – and the idea of ‘tolerable levels’ of diversion – is a taboo topic for aid agencies. Western governments and agencies typically view corruption as an evil practice to be stamped out. On the contrary, local communities are more accepting of diversion as long as some of the aid reaches them. Finding common ground on what is acceptable and unacceptable diversion of aid is not an easy task.
It is crucial that we minimise corruption and aid diversion, because ultimately it hurts the people who need assistance. But the focus should be on open conversations, not investigations. On understanding how aid interacts with political, economic and security dynamics; not on pretending that it operates outside of them. On how diverted aid is fuelling conflict, not on whether this diversion is 15%, 30% or 50%. Until this happens, corruption will remain a taboo topic and efforts to combat it will be superficial. The cycle of media scrutiny and agency rebuttals will continue, with poor people being a footnote in a race for moral high-ground.