Justine Greening under fire over theft of British aid supplies to Somalia
international development secretary. She says it is regrettable that
supplies funded by the UK taxpayer have been lost. Photograph: Ian
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Calls for better safeguards as UK development secretary says al-Shabaab looting demonstrates 'challenging conditions'.
The British government has been criticised over the theft of UK-funded aid supplies by Islamist militants in Somalia, despite claims by the international development secretary, Justine Greening, that the episode is indicative of the frequently difficult conditions in which her department operates.
The supplies, valued at £480,000 and owned by Unicef, the UN agency for children, and the Red Cross, were taken from warehouses in southern Somalia by al-Shabaab between November 2011 and February 2012.
The Department for International Development (DfID) would not specify what those supplies included. Its annual report and accounts, published in June, reported that the amount was written off.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday, Greening said: "Obviously Somalia is a highly unstable part of the world. We were there to combat terrorism. This incident shows that often we're working in incredibly challenging conditions."
However, opposition ministers said the revelations raised fundamental questions about government competence. Criticising DfID over the theft of the supplies, Ivan Lewis, the shadow development secretary, said: "Providing aid in conflict countries is very challenging, but proper safeguards have to be in place to ensure our aid does not end up in the hands of terrorist organisations like al-Shabaab. We want assurances that lessons have been learned and systems changed accordingly."
Although Greening emphasised the threat of terrorism, when the events took place Somalia was in the throes of a famine that had been declared by the UN in July. The UK was one of the first countries to announce a major humanitarian effort. In August 2011, Greening's predecessor, Andrew Mitchell, visited Mogadishu and announced an extra £25m in emergency aid for the east African country, to be handled by Unicef.
The UK spent £94.9m in official development assistance (ODA) in Somalia in 2011, of which £73.2m was humanitarian. The £480,000 written off amounts to approximately 0.5% of the total sum.
By the time the famine in Somalia was declared over, in February 2012, more than a quarter of a million people were estimated to have died. More than half were children under five, making it the worst famine in the past 25 years (pdf). A UN study estimated that 258,000 people died in southern and central parts of Somalia between October 2010 and April 2012, including 133,000 under fives.
Greening did not mention the famine in her interview. "It is regrettable we lost supplies funded by the taxpayer, but we were in Somalia precisely because of the terrorism threat and at the time there were huge piracy issues and it shows why we were there in the first place," she said.
Greening was also asked about UK aid to Nigeria, classified as a middle-income country. It is to receive £974m between 2011 and 2015, and some wonder why a country about to launch a space programme should receive UK taxpayers' money.
The development secretary pointed out that Nigeria was investing in weather satellites that could provide crucial information for a country with a large agricultural sector. "For a country like Nigeria, which still has a huge agricultural sector for which getting crops can be the difference between keeping people alive and having chronic famine, actually understanding weather problems – what is coming up – is absolutely key to food production and food planning," she told the Today programme.
Greening went on to describe Nigeria's investment in satellites – some funding for which has been provided by British companies – as "sensible" and one "we would expect them to be making alongside the investment that we make".
Her appearance on the Today programme comes against a background of rising discontent among Tory MPs about the coalition government's decision to increase the aid budget to 0.7% of gross national income, despite most government departments experiencing budget cuts.
According to Treasury documents released under the June spending review, ODA will rise to £11.7bn in 2014-15 and £12.2bn the following year. The UK spent £8.5bn on ODA in 2012. George Osborne, the chancellor, at the time acknowledged opposition in Tory ranks, but said he refused to balance the books at the expense of poor people.