EXCLUSIVE: A World Food Program initiative that handed out hundreds of millions of dollars of food vouchers has been confronted with "persistent" diversion and sale of the vouchers to middlemen for cash by the growing flood of Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, according to its internal auditors.
One reason for the diversion: the agency did not have systems in place to identify valid recipients, and its procedures were “not detailed enough to provide assurance that voucher transfers reached the correct beneficiaries in the correct amount,” the auditors have said.
The full extent of the desperation voucher sales was not made clear in the most recent audit document obtained by Fox News, which covered WFP operations from July 2013 to March 2014.
During the audited period, however, spending on the Jordan and Lebanon voucher programs amounted to more than $230 million in 2013 alone-- nearly three-fourths of the $317 million that WFP spent that year on vouchers across the entire region affected by the Syrian conflict.
A WFP spokesman, declaring that the agency has taken steps to meet the problem, indicated to Fox News that the cash-outs were continuing at a reduced rate.
The voucher issue is only one of a host of challenges that cloud the WFP relief effort in Syria and neighboring countries. One of the most glaring is that much of the Syrian food distribution is in the hands of charities and non-government organizations picked by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is considered by many critics to be too close to the Assad regime, and WFP “was not involved in the assessment or selection of these charities,” according to the agency’s auditors
Nor could WFP check consistently on how well those agencies were reporting: in all, according to the recent internal audit, less than 40 percent of its distribution sites were visited in 2014 by WFP or what auditors called a “third-party facilitator” who went where WFP staffers couldn’t.
Moreover, that “facilitator” was not required to report on the results in the same way that WFP staffers do, including an assessment of the “impact” of WFP programs, meaning how well they actually worked.
Beyond all that is the brutal reality of Syria’s ongoing war: as WFP spokesman told Fox News in response to questions about the food delivery audit, “insecurity and access continue to be WFP’s greatest challenge inside Syria.”
A big part of the problem is that the agency is still being handcuffed by the Assad regime in getting aid to hundreds of thousands of desperate people across the country.
The WFP spokesman cited a report by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, which noted that between December 2014 and the end of February 2015, “719,000 people have been denied access [to U.N. relief convoys] or are waiting for approval by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic at the national and governorate levels.”
The same report also noted that relief had managed to reach about 158,000 people during that period—roughly 18 percent of the total mentioned.
The fact that huge problems have arisen in making sure food relief gets to the suffering as planned are not exactly surprising in a relief operation as massive, chaotic and dangerous as the one that the war is continuing to generate.
The U.N. overall has appealed for some $8.4 billion to cover the relief effort this year for Syria and its neighbors—roughly the size of the annual U.N. peacekeeping budget—even as the brutal civil war continues calamity and additional waves of refugees.
Overall, some 12.2 million people are currently said by the U.N. to need humanitarian assistance, with 7.6 million of them Syrian internal refugees, and the remainder now living in surrounding countries.
At the same time donor fatigue may be setting in: after the $8.4 billion appeal, the U.N. claimed that some $3.8 billion in pledges had been received. However, the U.N.-managed Financial Tracking Service (FTS) notes that so far, only some $1.5 billion has been received.
Specifically for its Syria response plan this year, WFP has so far received about $137 million, according to FTS—less than 20 percent of its $714 million announced requirements.
The huge size of the required effort also calls for extra caution in dealing with the “high-risk” problems the WFP auditors have uncovered. For its part, a WFP spokesman told Fox News that many of the issues detailed in the recent audit were under control—although how much was still not exactly clear.
When it came to checking on distribution efforts by charities it had not selected, the spokesman said,WFP continues to “as much as possible monitor distributions organized by all its partners throughout the country”—a sizeable caveat.
At the same time that the spokesman acknowledged that the Syrian Arab Red Cross, or SARC, “collaborates with other charities” outside WFP’s ambit to support food distributions, he added that the Syrian organization “provides detailed reports to WFP” on the activities of the charities it works with.
The extent to which WFP can cross-check those reports, however, is part of the problem the auditors were noting. The spokesman also said that in 2014 WFP had carried out 76 percent of its planned 1,760 monitoring visits in 2014, “in a very unpredictable and volatile context” a significantly higher number than the auditors indicated.
The spokesman added, however, that much of this “significant achievement” was the result of the “third-party monitors” that auditors had said used different, and less discriminating, measures of the actual achievements of the aid deliveries.
This year, the spokesman said, “WFP is further enhancing its monitoring capacity” by adding more WFP field monitors—and also more of the third-party monitors that auditors had criticized.
Likewise, the spokesman said, WFP voucher programs had been overhauled. The agency, he said, had purged an electronic voucher system in Lebanon, deactivating those deemed invalid, and declared that “encashment trends are decreasing” in both Lebanon and Jordan--without specifying by how much.
He also did not answer a Fox News question asking how many people in Lebanon had received such electronic cards overall.
The spokesman also underlined one of WFP’s bigger new achievements: the launching of a school feeding program in Syria that he said currently reaches almost 112,000 children, along with 75,500 young children who get specialized nutrition support.
To put that in perspective, however, the U.N.’s 2015 Strategic Response Plan for Syria declares that “more than 5.6 million children” are in need of some kind of assistance, about 2.5 million children under age 5 need food aid, and some 370,000 need special nutritional help.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell