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Should the World Food Program Focus on Development?

The Lancet  June 30, 2007

Josette Sheeran, a former Bush Administration official, is the new executive director of the World Food Programme. She joins at a time when many are debating whether the agency's current primary role-dealing with emergencies-still makes sense. Samuel Loewenberg reports.

In the spring of last year, the World Food Programme (WFP) made a big splash in the news. The headlines were not because WFP-the UN agency that provides food to more than 90 million people worldwide-was doing its job. It was because WFP announced that it no longer could. The agency had received only a third of the money it had requested to feed more than 3 million people in the Darfur region of Sudan, and as a result it was going to cut its distributions of grains, oil, sugar, salt, and the rest of the nutrients it was handing out to people in the war-torn region by half, to 1050 calories a day. Within a week, WFP had received more than US100 million in donations, and the food pipeline was restored.

At the same time, WFP had received only about half of the money it needed to feed 9 million people across southern Africa. But that story, which did not involve a high-profile war and refugee crisis, failed to attract much notice. The hunger in southern Africa was due mostly to long-term poverty, and was not deemed newsworthy by mainstream media. The shortfall in funding meant WFP was forced to cut feeding programmes for 43 million people.

"Africans at war get far more attention than Africans at peace", said James Morris, who recently stepped down as head of WFP, in an address to world leaders. "Occasionally I have thought the worst place for a hungry child to live in Africa today is a country at peace and stable, but just plain poor."

In fact, 90 of the people who die as a consequence of malnutrition are not in the kind of high profile crises that make the evening news. Yet the funding for WFP, which is based solely on donations, is weighted in exactly the opposite direction, with most funds directed towards heavily-publicised crises, and only 10 set aside for development. Raising money for war refugees and catastrophic disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or the Pakistani earthquake is relatively easy, Morris told The Lancet.

But the chronic poverty that affects most of the world's hungry continues to be largely ignored, despite the repeated promises of national leaders to address the problem. "It's a mystery to me how the world makes big decisions", he said.

The Millennium Development Goals, the international pact to reduce poverty, aims to cut hunger in half by 2015. But the outlook is not good. In the past decade the number of hungry in sub-Saharan Africa has doubled. Now, WFP has a new executive director and there are high-level discussions about expanding the agency's mission. The new executive director, Josette Sheeran, a former senior Bush Administration official, took up office in April. Her connections to the right wing of American politics has some within the agency worried, although others are hopeful that her links with the White House will be a net gain for WFP.

Already, Washington officials are seeking to overhaul the process by which the USA-WFP's largest donor-donates food aid. Under the current system, most of the donations are purchased from American farmers and sent on US ships. This process has been considered as wasteful and unnecessarily slow. The US Congress is now debating whether to give some of its aid directly to WFP as cash to purchase food locally. Meanwhile, many people both within and outside the agency, are debating whether WFP's current primary role of providing food to people in emergencies still makes sense.

"One of the continuing problems for WFP is that it is on a golf course with one club", says Edward Clay, a senior research associate with the Overseas Development Institute in London, UK. Many countries in Asia and Latin America no longer have annual food crises, which is the result of long-term economic development. Emergency food aid tends to be like medical triage without preventive care: in places where WFP does emergency distributions, the problems almost invariably surface again the next year. If WFP had the available funds to focus on development in poor countries before hunger had reached critical proportions, it would be more cost-effective and have an effect in the long term. Currently, only about a tenth of the funds WFP receives from the wealthy nations it depends upon for funding go to agricultural projects of the kind that helped bring China out of a hunger cycle.

Concentrated efforts to foster a "green revolution" could have a lasting impact. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa only generate about 700 kg of grain per acre, while Chinese farmers, with access to irrigation, high-yield seeds, and fertiliser, generate more than three times that much. When WFP was established in 1963, donations of food were abundantly available. In the decades since then, the role of the agency has grown exponentially.

It is the provider of first, and usually last, resort for the world's hungry. The vulnerability of the world's poorest has been exacerbated by a combination of demographic changes, political instability, climate change, and epidemic disease. Unlike most other UN agencies, WFP is funded totally through donations that it must replenish every year. As WFP officials readily admit, this is a deeply flawed process that perpetuates a vicious cycle.

A case in point is Niger, which 2 years ago suffered what is now acknowledged to have been a famine. But despite more than 6 months of warnings and appeals for aid to head off the coming famine, it was not until the hunger crisis was full-blown in the middle of the summer dry season that the world took notice. After the BBC television news broadcast images of emaciated babies, donations started pouring in at ten times the rate they had before. By the time the urgent needs of a drought become visually apparent, it is usually too late. The next year, millions of Nigeriens, weakened by malnutrition and forced into debt, were again facing hunger, and WFP was again begging for assistance.

WFP, as the agency that is called in when poverty becomes a full-blown disaster, seems caught in a perpetual cycle of too little, too late. However, WFP has had its share of successes in moving beyond the narrow bounds of emergency food aid, and it is here that development experts see great potential.

The agency has opened up a new frontier by linking food aid to the treatment of HIV/AIDS, arguing that the high-profile success of providing antiretroviral drugs to Africans with the disease is undermined if they do not have access to basic nutrition. The distribution of micronutrients, like vitamins A and C, and zinc, has also proven successful, as have relatively small programmes making use of private sector assistance with logistics and providing drought insurance to farmers. And unusually for major international agencies, WFP wins plaudits for incorporating the critiques of outside groups and for continuously re-evaluating its food distributions to make sure they do not upset local markets.

If anything, said Lawrence Haddad, the director of the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, UK, "I think they just lack a little bit of ambition". He thinks that WFP should be at the front line of long-term development for the very poor, which is a demographic overlooked by many of the largest international agencies.

WFP's strong connections with local non-governmental organisations, trusted reputation, and relative efficiency puts it well ahead of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in being equipped to help bring impoverished people out of the precarious state in which they live. He cites the WFP's school feeding programme, which benefits more than 21 million children in 74 countries. The aid does not immediately benefit the most vulnerable children, those under the age of 2 years, who are too young to attend school. What the programme does do is bring children to school, and, especially for girls, there are many long-term benefits: they are less prone to disease, less likely to have children at an early age, and have a better chance at economic prosperity. Another programme, in Bangladesh, targets 300000 women, trying to get them healthy enough to participate in the much lauded microlending programmes of the Grameen Bank.

It remains an open question whether WFP will be kept on as a stopgap for the horrors of hunger, or will be given the tools to take on its root causes. "The world cries out for a movement, broadly inclusive, that is going to eliminate childhood hunger in the next 10 to 15 years", said Morris. "I am not cynical, I am frustrated. And I am hopeful."

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