Food hijack by Islamic State fuels debate over transparency of aid

Thu Feb 5, 2015 12:05am EST
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By Chris Arsenault

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The hijacking of United Nations aid deliveries by Islamic State fighters in Syria sparked outrage this week, reviving a debate about how humanitarian groups should work effectively to ensure crucial supplies reach victims in conflict zones.

Photos of fighters from the militant Islamic group handing out what appear to be boxes of aid from the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) with "Islamic State in Syria" labels pasted over the WFP logo have been circulating on the Internet.

From Al Shabaab in Somalia to illegal armed groups in Colombia, the problem of militants commandeering food assistance is not new but it is a sensitive topic for charities behind aid deliveries.

The WFP condemned the "manipulation of desperately needed food aid". The group is trying to confirm the authenticity of the images but acknowledged that food from a warehouse near Aleppo, Syria, was stolen last September.

"We believe this is an isolated incident," WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Security experts and academics studying the problem believe charities need to be more open when discussing where aid is going, how much disappears and who benefits. Aid groups should stop suppressing information about theft for fear of alienating donors, observers said.

Funding for relief is a constant problem, with the WFP suspending food aid for more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees in December after facing a shortfall of $64 million, which donors eventually raised.

"What goes on in the field is not transparent ... but if we just recognize a lot of aid is being misappropriated, then maybe aid agencies will be more likely to share data," said Yale University economist Nancy Qian, who studies aid flows.   Continued...

Kurdish refugees from the Syrian town of Kobani wait for food distributed during lunch time at a refugee camp in the border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas