Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Surprise! Sometimes things do go right

  • Print

As I read the article about stolen aid in Somalia in Tuesday's Free Press (Food aid for Somalis stolen, sold at markets), I thought: "Yep -- right on schedule."

And what schedule is that? Just as there are stages to a natural disaster, there are stages to how the media report about it.

Simply put, the stages of a natural disaster for international aid groups begin with discovery of the need, moves to respond and then, many months or years later, end with recovery -- helping people address long-term food-security needs so they aren't as severely impacted if another crisis hits.

The media follow a similar trajectory, beginning with the first alarming reports of dire need. What follows are the always-welcome encouragements for people to respond, along with stories of how people in need are being assisted. It then turns, with sad predictability, to stories about stolen or misappropriated aid.

And that is where we are at today.

According to the story from The Associated Press -- which has been carried, to date, by more than 800 media outlets -- thousands of sacks of food aid meant for Somalia's famine victims have been stolen and are being sold at markets in the same neighbourhoods "where skeletal children in filthy refugee camps can't find enough to eat."

The story goes on to say the UN's World Food Program acknowledged it has been investigating food theft in Somalia for two months, but that the scale of the famine crisis does not allow for a suspension of assistance.

Any loss of food aid, no matter how it happens, is regrettable. Nobody wants to see it occur, least of all aid groups. But aid groups also know that things can go wrong, especially in places where security is lax or non-existent, when lawlessness abounds, corruption is rampant and where too many people have guns and aren't afraid to use them.

As for aid for sale in markets, it's not always what it seems. Some of it may indeed be stolen. But some of it may also have been sold by needy recipients in order to obtain cash to buy even more food or other kinds of food or other essential and needed items.

In aid parlance, this is known as a "resource transfer." Needy people are still helped, albeit in a different way than intended.

When aid is stolen or is found for sale in the market, the media's focus is usually on what's gone wrong. But what's more amazing is how much actually goes right, considering the incredibly difficult circumstances facing aid groups during emergencies like the one in eastern Africa. If you were planning to feed people, you probably wouldn't plan to do it there, for so many, in a place where there's no food, the roads are poor, housing is in short supply, conditions are harsh, and local authorities and systems are completely overwhelmed.

But that's where they are, so it's where aid groups need to be.

I don't mean to dump on the media; without them, international aid groups would never be able to raise the amount of money needed to help people caught in crisis. They are vital to mobilizing Canadians to help people facing death or ruin in the developing world. Those of us who work in international relief and development deeply appreciate their help.

But articles like the one about stolen aid can also have the sad effect of dampening Canadian enthusiasm for giving. And that would be truly unfortunate.

Nobody wants to see aid stolen -- aid groups least of all. They work hard to ensure that donations get to those who need help. This means planning for every contingency, including loss. They don't like it, but they know they can't stop helping the most vulnerable because some of their aid went missing.

There are places in the world where donations would never be stolen, lost or misappropriated -- places where the government always works well, laws are enforced and respected, roads are in great condition, there is no war or conflict, housing isn't an issue, and people feel secure.

The last time I checked, though, a country like Switzerland doesn't need any food aid.

John Longhurst directs resources and public engagement for Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church agencies working together to end hunger.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2011 A11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Jets players discuss outcome of Game 3 and hopes for Game 4

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Hay bales sit under a rainbow just west of Winnipeg Saturday, September 3, 2011.(John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press)
  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press. Local- WINTER FILE. Snowboarder at Stony Mountain Ski Hill. November 14, 2006.

View More Gallery Photos


Will you be checking out the new Olympus exhibit at the WAG?

View Results

Ads by Google