Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.
In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.
The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.
The reason why the Polisario doesn’t let the refugees in whose name it claims to speak go home is that holding them hostage is quite lucrative. The United Nations provides humanitarian aid for those refugees, which the Polisario effectively administers, as they control the camps when the UN officials retreat to their headquarters. Herein lays the scam: While the Polisario claims its camps hold 120,000 refugees, most diplomats and independent observers place the figure at closer to 40,000. And many of these residents are not even refugees, as they originate in Algeria and Mauritania. Back-of-the-napkin calculation based on informal surveying of escapees from the Polisario camps: maybe only 20,000 technically qualify as refugees. Both Algeria and the Polisario know this, and so they refuse to allow the United Nations to conduct any census. Rather than stand up for accountability or suspend relief operations until the Algerians enable such a census, the United Nations simply accepts the fiction of the Polisario claims, and supplies relief for perhaps five times the number of refugees who actually live in the Polisario’s camps.
This is where corruption crosses the line into a threat to security: Across North Africa and the Sahel, Polisario smugglers are taking relief supplies given by the international community and indirectly subsidized by U.S. donations to the United Nations and selling them for profit. Many security analysts have already pointed out the growing interplay between the Polisario Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which uses the Polisario camps for recruitment and may increasingly cooperate with the Islamist terrorist groups wreaking havoc across the Sahel. Like so many other regional countries, smuggling of international relief in response to the Polisario Front’s tenuous claims, therefore, has now crossed the line into a security problem as AQIM co-opts the smuggling routes enabled by fraudulent relief to expand its coffers and fund its operations. Algeria now seems to acquiesce to the bargain: turn a blind eye toward jihadists so long as they conduct their operations outside Algerian borders, no matter what the cost to Mali, Libya, Tunisia, or Morocco.
The solution is blindly obvious: If the Obama administration and Congress are truly committed to preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence in the post-bin Laden-era; if they also care about making sure taxpayer funds and foreign assistance are not wasted in an age of budget cutbacks and austerity; and if President Obama and Ambassador Samantha Power truly want to ensure the United Nations has credibility, then it behooves everyone to ensure that no money goes to the Polisario camps until there is basic accountability. Ignoring corruption is no longer a question of preventing waste; increasingly, it is a matter of national security.