For at least six years, top officials of the Somali government diverted US food aid from the most needy to enrich their friends and to feed the army fighting a long-running border war with Ethiopia. Throughout that period, the US Agency for International Development (AID) tolerated these food diversions which violated their own aid rules. In addition to enriching corrupt officials and assisting the Somali war effort, this food fraud subverted attempts to move arid, food-shortage-ridden Somalia closer to self-sufficiency. These are the conclusions of a 1986 General Accounting Office report which charged that AID knew about the Somali abuses and did nothing to stop them. The study, Famine in Africa: Improving Emergency Food Relief Programs, was quietly presented to Congress in March 1986 and ignored by an American press and political leadership who have frequently attacked Ethiopia and other leftwing African governments for allegedly diverting food aid to serve military ends.

In Chad, workers with Western development agencies detailed similar food aid diversions. The Chad abuses appear far less severe, but they mar the reputation of an aid effort which otherwise received high marks.

The Somali food fraud appears closely linked to the rise of US-Somali military ties in the 1970s. Somalia was a key Soviet ally and military client until 1977, when it expelled Soviet military advisors. In 1978, the government started receiving, and misappropriating, US government food aid, according to the GAO. Formal US-Somali military talks began in 1979 and culminated in a military accord signed in 1980. Today, Somalia allows US military forces freer access to its ports and airfields than any nearby country, according to a 1986 Reagan administration military aid planning document. Somalia’s “strategic position on the approaches to the Red Sea” and its proximity to potential conflict areas in the Arabian Gulf make such access vital, that report explained. Instead of helping needy Somalis, food thus appears to serve — whether intended or not — as a kind of payoff for military access to Somalia.

Some of the worst abuses occurred during Africa’s most tragic famine year, 1984. Only 12 percent of the 16,000 tons of emergency food the US provided Somalia reached the hungry people it was intended for, reported the GAO. Instead, 9 percent went to the Somali armed forces, 21 percent to other government bodies for their use, and 58 percent was not even distributed.

Somalia also misused $96 million worth of wheat, rice, vegetable oil and other food items bought from the US between 1978 and 1984 under an economic aid program (PL 480) which gives Third World countries low-interest loans to buy surplus commodities. Somali officials were supposed to resell food to the highest bidder and use the proceeds to fund agricultural development, thereby moving toward greater self-sufficiency. Instead, the GAO reported, officials sold almost all the food to the army or state employees at below-market prices.

At one point, AID pressed Somalia to sell the food at public auction. Somali officials obligingly staged auctions, but rejected high bids and sold grain to their friends at low cost. AID did little to stop them, the GAO charged. On another occasion, government officials “intercepted” 2,500 tons of emergency wheat and sold it at one-sixth of market value ”to friends who resold it for a profit,” says the GAO. By allowing food aid to enrich this small elite of politically-connected merchants, the US further impoverished the Somali people and undercut local farmers, charged the GAO. Instead of raising funds for development, the program created a “disincentive for farmers to grow more food.”

AID’s response to the GAO sidestepped the charges. “We do not find,” it declared in its formal response, “any evidence in the report that food was distributed to people who were not in need of assistance.” AID emphasized that it was not directly responsible for ignoring abuses because it did not sell food directly to the military. However, the agency added, “Although it may not be popular to have PL 480 food go to the military, the need of feeding poorly-paid conscripts and their families remains.” It avoided comment on how this may have aided military operations.

Throughout Chad’s 1985 food crisis, officials from UN agencies, the Chadian government, Western donor nations and a host of non-government aid organizations (NGOs) met weekly in war-scarred, dust-blown N’Djamena to plan food-relief shipments. It was a vital effort, because Chad’s almost total lack of roads, trucks and communications infrastructure meant no one organization could keep track of food needs in more than a small portion of the country.

For the most part, it was a smooth-running operation, one which helped Chad — against impossible odds — avoid a potentially huge famine death toll. At the same time, but through separate channels, President Hissene Habre’s Western military backers provided food, as part of their military aid programs, to help feed Chad’s army.

Yet several private agency officials found that some food designated for civilian famine relief also went to the military. In May and June 1985 they carefully analyzed food transport records compiled by the World Food Program, comparing amounts sent with the figures of needy people in the places where the food was sent. During the study period, at least 16 percent of relief food — 1,570 tons out of 9,458 — was diverted for other purposes. Of this, about half went to places where there was a military base but no civilian population. The remainder was distributed along Habre’s route when he travelled the country to build support for his government.

These were only the most obvious diversions, the researchers emphasize. They suspect that the military also took some food shipped to places where there was genuine civilian need. In effect, food relief was going to the very forces which were causing famine, complained one angry NGO official. He said that Habre’s troops fueled famine with their 1984-85 “silent war” in the south. Soldiers burned entire villages in areas seen as hostile to the N’Djamena government, where anti-government guerrillas were active. This military action, in a drought-stricken region, added greatly to an already severe food shortage, he explained. To avoid official retaliation, the researchers asked not to be identified.

Ironically, the politicization of food aid sometimes helps needy people who live under governments disliked by Western donors. In revolutionary Burkina Faso and Marxist Ethiopia, US officials painstakingly monitor food programs to prevent political abuses of the sort described above. State Department reports emphasize US dislike for the “hostile rhetoric” of Burkinabe leader Thomas Sankara, and display little interest in wooing him. The Reagan administration told Congress in 1985 that Sankara’s poor, landlocked nation “has no strategic minerals or other major natural resources” and thus little political or military significance. Distrusting Sankara, the US demanded that his government minutely account for every ounce of grain. As a result, the GAO researchers who condemned food fraud in Somalia found that Burkina Faso ran a corruption-free aid program in which 98 percent of US aid “reached the most needy.”

Similarly, US official sources privately say that they find in Ethiopia few of the corruption problems plaguing food aid in many Third World countries. This faint praise is especially striking because the US — and many independent observers — charge that Ethiopian officials have denied food to people in rebel-held areas and used the drought as an excuse for mounting politically-motivated resettlement programs which may have caused many deaths. US officials say they must act tough and watch the Ethiopians closely but that Ethiopia handles US food aid with care because it knows aid shipments will be cut off at the first sign of abuse.

Private American agencies with close State Department ties openly praised Ethiopian relief efficiency. As we travelled together in September 1985 through the rugged hills of famine-stricken Wollo province, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Ethiopia director Frank Carlin said he had never seen an emergency effort so free of corruption in his 20 years of relief work. CRS, the number one distributor of American food aid worldwide, is known for its close links to American foreign policy. CRS’s Africa director — also on the Wollo trip — served as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under Republican President Gerald Ford.

This does not mean leftwing governments get a fair deal from AID. CRS — in a rare public break with the State Department — in 1985 condemned AID for proposing Ethiopian food-aid cuts which would force relief workers to “apply triage, deciding who will live and who will die.” Though US government officials insisted they were generous to Ethiopia, CRS charged that the US was hurting hungry peasants to punish the government that rules them.

Nonetheless, the US sends a bizarre message to Africa when it lets pro-American regimes steal donated food from hungry people. In its eagerness to buy support from ruling elites, Washington is inadvertently telling the Third World poor that — on food aid, at least– they are often better off with a government hostile to the United States.


Editors’ Note: This article first appeared in African Business, August 1986. Reprinted by permission. Additional research by Mills Crossland.

How to cite this article:

Steve Askin "Food Aid Diversion," Middle East Report 145 (March/April 1987).

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