Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

The Great Bangladesh Cooking Set Scam

There are some unstoppable drives that people in disaster areas develop.

Emergency food supplies being delivered to refugee camps in northeastern Kenya by C-130 Hercules aircraft.Find food, water, shelter, no matter what it takes. And, find some way, any way, to get some money. The big international aid agencies, most notably the World Food Programme and the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, look after the basic needs.

But developing sources of income requires individuals to get creative. If sometimes it means criminality then so it is. Life is stone age brutal in war, famine, and disaster areas.

There are many tales of relief supplies going adrift, of donated supplies being sold in the back alley bazaars, of corrupt officials and politicians. Rarely do they have any proof attached but they are so colourful that they defy debunking and are widely believed by the wandering global tribe of relief workers when they gather for drinks after a day of dealing with death and destruction.

Atlas Map of Bagladesh

Bangladesh is a small overcrowded country tucked into the northeast corner of the Indian sub-continent. It is very low lying and frequently suffers from flooding.

The Great Bangladesh Cooking Set Scam is among them.

In the wake of one of the huge typhoons which sweep across the low flats of Bangladesh somebody came up with the idea that one of the things the disaster riddled people needed was some way to cook their food without having to use cut open oil cans or pesticide drums.

Committees were formed, plans drawn, contracts given, and pretty soon the first sets of nested aluminum cooking pots were coming out of a Bangladesh factory.  The first run was twenty thousand sets.

The United Nations World Food Programme tracked the project carefully, ever alert from years of work in disaster areas to the ways that people can make money out of suffering.  The twenty thousand cooking sets were stamped with registration marks.  The metal was tested to make sure it met the contract specifications and there was an elaborate paper trail which required the manufacturer to provide proof that pots were being produced and tested.

Bangladesh has several million people but even so the aid workers began to get a little suspicious when they didn’t see too many of the cooking sets actually in the villages.  More than a hundred thousand sets should have been distributed by then and according to the manufacturer they were and he had the paperwork to prove it.

Sure enough there were neat stacks of reports from the company showing production runs of around twenty thousand and test results.  But then someone noticed that some of the results were a little too consistent and the numbers of cooking sets produced too similar and there were faint marks on the photocopies which looked like whiteout had been used.

In the end the manufacturer admitted it was all fake.  The first set of pots had indeed gone out the front door but they’d come in the back way just about as fast.

The disaster victims first reaction at being given an absolutely new set of cooking pots for absolutely nothing was essentially, “Gee thanks, already got some pots, maybe a little smelly but hey, they work.  I can turn a good buck with these things.”  So they sold them back to the company and the company with this suddenly acquired cheap inventory found it all much easier to play with the paperwork and invoice the UN for pots which just did an endless circuit.

As I said, I have never seen any documentary evidence or heard from a primary source about this incident. It is however a widely told tale among relief workers when they are sitting around having a beer. It is one of those wonderful tales that are just too nice, too inevitable, too good to be false. And that is how legends are started.