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US investigation of Syria donor leads to aid suspension, price hikes in Idlib

AMMAN: The price of bread grew significantly in parts of northwestern […]

5 May 2016

AMMAN: The price of bread grew significantly in parts of northwestern Syria this week, doubling in some areas and quadrupling in others, after an ongoing investigation into the procurement activities of an Irish aid organization resulted in the suspension of flour aid to Idlib bakeries.

The Irish charity, GOAL Global, is no longer providing flour and yeast to 52 bakeries in Idlib province as of a week ago, local officials in the rebel-controlled province told Syria Direct.

The decision to suspend the aid, which rebel-held villages in northern Syria use to produce subsidized bread, follows a US-led investigation into “alleged supply-chain irregularities” involving GOAL, according to its April 29 statement on its website.  

“Pending the outcome of the investigation, US funding for certain procurement aspects of GOAL’s Syria aid program (emergency food and non-food items), has been suspended,” according to the GOAL statement. The Dublin-based organization, founded in 1977, provides emergency assistance, food and water to 50 countries and has been operating in Syria since 2012.  

The “investigation is ongoing,” GOAL Syria Director Vicki Aken told Syria Direct on Friday, but said “the donor is working with us to ensure that the supplies continue to flow.”

USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which is leading the investigation, declined Syria Direct’s requests to comment for this article. 

Local officials in Idlib province have not received “any justification” for the suspension of the flour donations, at least four sources involved in bread distribution on the ground told Syria Direct.

“GOAL’s flour pipeline experienced a one-week delay at the beginning of May,” Aken said on Friday. 

Idlib bakeries are now increasing the price of bread to make up for the cost of purchasing flour and yeast from Turkey, local officials told Syria Direct on Thursday, adding that the regional councils reduced the weight of a bundle of bread in order to make it more affordable.  

“It is possible that the price of bread increases in the various bakeries when they run out of GOAL flour,” Syria Country Director Aken said. Other factors contributing to price hikes include the price of “fuel and the end of last year’s wheat supplies,” she added.

The price of a 750-gram bundle of flatbread now costs SP125 (≈ $0.23); a week ago we were selling a 1,150-gram bundle of flatbread for SP60 (≈ $0.11),” Mohamed Rami Qaza, a member of the Idlib provincial council from the northwest Idlib town of Sarmada, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Several civilian officials in Idlib told Syria Direct bread prices are fluctuating from town to town, and change on a daily basis.

“The price in each area depends on local economic factors and the support provided by smaller organizations,” Idlib Provincial Council spokesman Yeman Hamou told Syria Direct on Thursday.

 A bread oven in Idlib province. Photo courtesy of All4Syria.

Over the last five years, the price of bread, a staple in the Syrian diet that was once heavily subsidized by Damascus, has increased significantly in most provinces across the country.

In rebel-controlled Idlib province, ruled by a coalition of rebels led by Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, local officials and residents say the recent price hikes were completely unexpected.

“At these prices, it will cost me SP30,000 (≈ $54.00) to provide bread for my family for the month, and my income is only SP20,000 (≈ $36.00),” said Idlib resident Mohammed Nasser, a father of four.

“What am I supposed to do?” asked Mohammed.

 Idlib Provincial Council meets Thursday to discuss bread shortage. Photo courtesy of Yeman Hamou.

‘A basic necessity for life’

In October 2015, local officials in Idlib established a single price of bread province-wide.

“The project was very effective. We set the price at SP60 (≈ $0.11) for a 1,150-gram bundle of flatbread,” said Rami Qaza.

“This price remained in effect for as long as we had flour support,” he added.

In the past, other organizations have stopped providing flour support, Provincial Council spokesman Hamou told Syria Direct on Thursday. Two months ago, the Turkish aid organization AFAD suspended its flour-aid operation in Idlib province. It is unclear whether the suspension was related to the OIG investigation.

The suspension of GOAL’s aid program is particularly significant, said Hamou, as it is the largest flour donor in Idlib province, covering 20 percent of the province’s bakeries.

“Every time aid is suspended we have to look for new donors,” said Hamou.

On Thursday, Hamou and his colleagues on the provincial council told Syria Direct they were meeting to discuss solutions to the flour shortage.

“A loaf of bread is a basic necessity,” said Hamou.

“We are working to find new partners to provide it.”

This article was updated on May 6, 2016 to reflect quotations from GOAL Syria Country Director Vicki Aken. Syria Direct contacted GOAL for comment early Thursday. After publication Thursday, GOAL reached out. 

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