Following the discovery of oil in 2010, Ghana is on the road to becoming one of Africa’s more economically successful countries. But it is not quite there yet and still ranks 138th out of 187 countries in the 2014 Human Development Index.
The most obvious signs of this poverty are found in the north of the country, where most of the population are small scale subsistence farmers who have to battle with poor soil quality, an erratic rainy season, and recurrent floods and droughts. These problems in turn often lead to serious food shortages and high rates of malnutrition.
you are hungry right from childhood, it affects who you become in the future.”]
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), four out of 10 children under the age of five in northern Ghana are chronically malnourished, meaning they will not be able to meet their full growth potential. Some of them, to put it even more starkly, will die for lack of food.
This is why, despite its sunnier long term prospects, Ghana still receives tens of millions of dollars’ worth of food aid from the international community.
But while these generous annual donations, from the WFP and others, are carefully calculated to provide sustenance to all those in dire need, somehow they never prove to be enough.
The food arrives in bulk at government-run distribution centres and then quickly runs out. All too often those in search of help turn up to be told that that stocks are again running low or that promised deliveries have not yet been made.
At the King’s Village Health Centre in Tamale, northern Ghana, which has helped thousands of malnourished babies and children, operations director Dr James Duah is puzzled about these shortages and worried about the consequences.
“About 40 percent of all under-fives in the communities here are stunted and malnourished. It has an effect on mental abilities … If you are malnourished, [if] you are hungry, right from childhood it affects who you become in the future,” he says.
So what happens to all the food that is donated? Are the deficits merely the consequence of some bureaucratic hold up in the supply chain or are there more sinister forces at work.
In this episode of Africa Investigates, Ghanaian journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas sets out in search of the answers and unveils a truly shocking tale of theft and corruption.
His undercover investigation reveals how officials of the Ghanaian Health Service – some of the very people tasked with distributing aid to starving children – are stealing and selling it for their own gain. Filming secretly, Anas and his team pose as buyers and make contact with two of the corrupt officers. They are shown into storehouses where boxes of donated food – still bearing the logos of international aid agencies – are piled high. It quickly becomes clear, the stolen goods are all for sale.
When Dr James sees the footage he is appalled. “In this community where there are so many malnourished children, and these people are deprived of what could save their lives … it is crime. It is the highest crime.”
Armed with the evidence, Anas then joins forces with the Ghanaian police and together they plot a sophisticated sting to catch the crooks in the act.
But as the film Ghana: Food for Thought builds to a tense and dramatic climax, the success of the operation hangs in the balance when things do not quite go according to plan.
By Anas Aremeyaw Anas
The need to go undercover to reveal a story will always arise because some societal ills will persist and soar insofar as nobody dares to confront the criminals squarely. My motivation to go undercover is hinged on doing all it takes to lessen the plight of humanity – especially the vulnerable.
The vulnerable group in the case of my latest undercover exposé is malnourished children who qualify for food aid according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
This is comparable to murder.
More often than not, we see malnutrition as being very far away from us, so far away that some people only see it in the news and in movies- for the simple reason that most of us are fortunate to have at least two square meals a day.
Those in the movies are acting reality as it pertains somewhere and reporters report what is routine elsewhere. No matter how farfetched and difficult it is for us to grapple with, malnourished children in the news tells how people mostly children elsewhere would starve to death but for assistance by donor agencies like the WFP and its partners.
A question that often comes up is whether as a nation we are really in need of food aid. Dr James of the King’s Village Health Center in Tamale answers: yes and no. His reasons being that:
“In the long term Ghana will not need aid if we get the people who will think right. People who will make sure that what we are producing ourselves is taken care of, we will not (need aid). But where the aid comes every time, then it stops us from thinking. It shuts our brains and then people begin to take advantage so in the long term we don’t need aid. But in the short term, yes, we do”.
I am Anas Aremeyaw Anas. I made a trip to the northern part of Ghana, where available statistics indicate that whereas two in every 10 people in the south are poor, six out of every 10 persons living in the north are poor.
The disparity between the north and other parts of the country is so gaping that attempts to bridge that gap is of utmost importance even as Ghana marches towards achieving middle income status.
The north is referred to as Ghana’s savannah region. It consists of three regions – upper east, upper west and northern region. The twin factors of poverty and climatic dynamics have resulted in the deepening of poverty across the regions. When parents are poor, they cannot feed themselves or their children. Thus pregnant women and children bear the brunt of this poverty in terms of hunger and malnutrition.
I visited several health centers and the sight of these malnourished children brought me to tears. I was informed that they die on a daily basis!
It is this dire situation that has led to the World Food Programme supplying the regions with food and other nutritional supplements targeted at malnourished children and people living with HIV/AIDS.
That donor support project under the Ghana Health Service has been ongoing in selected health centers in the regions yet the malnutrition statistics have hardly achieved any significant reduction. What could account for this?
It turned out that persons within the Ghana Health Service mandated to safeguard these foods were criminally selling out these food items to members of the public and other institutions for their parochial interest. The foods are meant to be distributed at no cost to malnourished children and pregnant women and yet these unscrupulous health officials always claim shortage to those who are in need and rather sell it for profit to businessmen.
Whilst undercover, I managed to pay for and take delivery of boxes of super cereal plus (a corn soya blend), sacks of white maize and white pea beans, boxes of iodised salt and cartons of palmolein – a fortified bleached deodorised oil.
These foods – meant to be given out free of charge to parents of these malnourished children – were being sold out in large quantities for personal profit by two government officials – one of whom had even turned his house into an illegal supply depot.
The two criminals are in the custody of the Upper East regional police command after they were arrested by the police in a raid at their respective locations while in the act of delivering supplies to me. As you will see from the film, the raids had their moments of high drama.
These scoundrels have done a lot of damage to the very feeble children I encountered during my visit of the Kings Village Health Center in Tamale, where Dr James and his team have been treating malnourished children since 2008.
It is a shame that as much as 40 percent of children under five years who were helped here are stunted and malnourished. But it is even more appalling that the managers of the Ghana Health Service in the region had failed to detect any shortage of these foods and for that matter that the cases of malnutrition were not dropping as projected.
Arresting the scoundrels and putting them before court is the least that my team and I together with the police have achieved; the bigger task of being vigilant to avert any such losses from henceforth rests on the Ghana Health Service and on civil society.
To know that children are dying on a daily basis for lack of nutritional food whilst the majority of us throw food into the rubbish should be enough to jar our consciences so that the right thing is done. These children do not need our food; they need our voices to speak for them and our eyes to keep watch over those who have the duty to supply them with the much needed food.
We cannot fail these children; they are the future of our dear nation. God bless my homeland Ghana.