COVID-19 Food Distribution & the Dispute Triggered by WFP’s US$9m Charge

It seems the ink on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) and the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), which led to the transfer of US$30m to the World Food Program (WFP), for implementation of Liberia’s COVID-19 Household Food Support Programme (COHFSP), had not dried when  misunderstanding broke out in the Liberian public sphere as regards to WFP’s charge of a whopping US$9m for distribution of the food to vulnerable households in the country.

The whole budget of the COHFSP includes US$25m directly from the Government of Liberia (GOL) and US$5m from the World Bank (WB).

Under this programmme, a month’s supply of food (50 kg of rice, 10 kg of beans and 1 gallon of vegetable oil are given per household for around 2.5 million most vulnerable people across the country.

The government said the provision of the stimulus package was a way of easing the harsh economic burdens caused by the outbreak of the lethal novel Coronavirus.

Addressing members of the Upper House of the bicameral Liberian Legislature (Senate) recently on Capitol Hill in Monrovia, Professor Wilson Tarpeh, Chairman of the National Steering Committee on the COVID-19 Food Distribution, told the Senate Plenary (the highest decision-making body of the Upper House) that of the US$30m, US$20m will be used for purchase of the food and US$9m would go towards administrative expenses.

Giving details on the matter, Professor Tarpeh who is also Minister of Commerce and a top executive of the governing Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), narrated that the government and its partners, especially the World Bank, considered distributing the food package to vulnerable communities and four counties that were earlier affected by the novel coronavirus.

Minister Tarpeh named the four counties as Montserrado, Margibi, Nimba and Grand Kru. Afterward, he told the Senators that the food distribution exercise will be extended to other counties. 

Nevertheless, the explanation of Minister Tarpeh, apparently did not go down well with some of the Senators who contended that the Resolution  passed earlier by both Houses of the Legislature (Senate and the House of Representatives) did not say “four counties and vulnerable communities” as beneficiaries of the stimulus package, rather the entire country.

Other Senators raised qualms relative to the US$9m charged by the UN food agency, World Food Program (WFP), for food distribution to vulnerable Liberian households, describing such charge as unacceptable and not in the best interest of the country.

It may be recalled that the Legislature made a modification in passing the Resolution that all of the 15 counties within the Republic will be covered as affected counties for the food support and that additional amounts needed shall be submitted for re-appropriation.

In their resolution, the lawmakers further stressed that procurement under this program must first accommodate locally produced food, and the food distribution program must prioritize both the vulnerable and the first responder populations. 

They referenced disadvantaged youth, the homeless, orphanages, senior citizens; people with disabilities, health workers and security personnel deployed at the frontline of the enforcement of the State of Emergency imposed by President George Weah aimed at halting the exponential spread of the COVID-19 across the country.

On his Facebook page, Montserrado County Senator, Saah Joseph, a populous official of the ruling CDC penned these words at the time: “The WFP’s $9m charge for food distribution is totally unappealing. This should not be allowed to happen in a poor country like ours. This is not free money. It is a loan that we, the people of Liberia must pay.”

 Interestingly, however, the Senator’s post was later deleted from his Facebooke page, giving no reason for his action. 

Another Senator,   Abraham Darius Dillon of Montserrado County and a ranging member of the opposition Liberty Party (LP), wrote on his Facebook page that there is a dark cloud of corruption hanging over the entire exercise.

 “Out of the $30 million for free food, nearly $10m (1/3) or 33% to be used for unexplained administrative costs. Something is Fishy,” opinioned the Montserrado County’s tough-talking Senator and diehard critic of the governing CDC.

Fascinatingly, the Liberian government, through Information Minister Eugene Nagbe, categorically refuted Senator Dillon’s assertion, describing it as a “diabolical lie” and an attempt by the opposition bloc to undermine the progress the CDC led government has made.

Minister Nagbe also clarified that the fund would be under the total control of the World Food Program to spearhead the food distribution. 

According to Nagbe, the government remains focused on rallying and receiving international support to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on the citizens.

 “The fact of the matter is that the government has transferred USD25 Million from the GOL Consolidated accounts at the Central Bank of Liberia to the World Food Program to implement the food support program. So, all this is a diabolical lie coming from Senator Dillon and other opposition leaders whose nasty politicking knows no bounds even in the wake of a national calamity like the COVID-19 pandemic,” he told a local daily, FrontPageafrica.

 It may be recalled that on April 18, 2020, the National Legislature passed a Joint Resolution, approving the initial request for US$25m by the Executive Branch for the food support program.

President George Manneh Weah had requested the Legislature to re-appropriate US$25m for the remainder of the 2019/2020 budget year in support of the government’s stimulus package, and for the World Food Program (WFP) to carry out a 60-day food distribution to vulnerable households.

As part of the stimulus package unveiled by President Weah, government plans to fully pay loans owed by vulnerable market people, take up electricity bills of households in affected counties, and concomitantly provide support to the state-owned Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC).

However, James Belgrave, Communication Officer for the WFP in Rome, responding to a FrontPageAfrica inquiry, dismissed suggestions that the WFP is charging Liberia US$9 million to distribute food to Liberians during the COVID pandemic lockdown. To the contrary, Mr. Belgrave said, the WFP is being allocated only a small percentage, “around six percent.”

Said Belgrave via email: “WFP is not charging US$9 million to the Government of Liberia – any suggestions to the contrary are totally unfounded. In Liberia, the Government-led COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP) has a total budget of US$30 million. This comprises the cost of the food basket (rice, beans and vegetable oil) as well as the costs of storing, transporting and delivering the assistance to vulnerable households targeted under the programme. A very small percentage of the budget (around 6%) goes towards meeting essential minimum costs for WFP to deliver its life-saving assistance – this is standard across all the countries where WFP works and is in line with international standards of aid delivery.”

The WFP’s clarification seems to have contradicted what Commerce Minister Wilson Tarpeh’s assertion during Senate hearing that of the USD$30 million, USD$20 million will go to food cost while USD$9 million will go toward the operational cost.

The paper further quoted WFP as stating that it is charging six percent of the US$30 million, which brings its portion to approximately US$1.8 million.

Further commenting on the US$30m food distribution saga and its role in the implementation of the exercise, the WFP, in a formal statement issued in Monrovia a few days later, disclosed that in line with government’s strategy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, WFP was delegated with the responsibility of implementing the COHFSP, “given its capacity, experience and expertise in managing emergency relief programmes.”

“These account for US$25 million directly from the Government of Liberia and US$5 million from the World Bank,” the statement added.

“WFP understands that the Government has transferred the amount to WFP’s account as per the signed Memorandum of Understanding between the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) and the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP),” the agency further indicated.

“The value of the food is approximately estimated at US$20.4 million, pending the final award of all contracts to suppliers. The portion of the budget that constitutes the costs of storing, transporting, and delivering the assistance (or operational costs) is estimated at US$7.8 million,” WFP pointed out.

“These costs include in-country transport cost, costs for cooperating partners supporting the programme, food safety and quality control, casual labour services, household enumeration/registration among others,” it asserted. WFP: “These include allocations toward the support costs of the Liberia Country Office directly linked to the execution of the programme (e.g. applicable rental costs, back office staff costs etc.) and allocations toward the support costs of WFP Headquarters/Regional Bureau in their oversight and support function, called Indirect Support Costs (ISC). Together, these can be referred to as the administrative costs.”

The UN food agency made it clear that “Resources from the COHFSP budget are independently managed by the WFP, and not by the Government of Liberia.

“Government entities will receive resources for specific food-related tasks, such as enumeration, which LISGIS is leading, or communications and security through WFP’s accounting and financial management systems.  The COHSFP has established a Finance and Budget Committee chaired by the World Bank that approves expenditures”, it said.

WFP maintains that it remains upbeat in providing a financial report on expenditures accrued for the implementation of the COHFSP to the Government through the Steering Committee.

Nevertheless, other Liberians who commented on the matter opined among other things that it would have been less capital-intensive and more rewarding if Liberian-owned institutions or businesses given the opportunity to implement such food distribution exercise as part of empowering them. 

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