Food aid system smarter, despite old flaws

by Alex Whiting | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 2 May 2012 11:00 GMT

What's wrong with the way the world delivers food aid - and how can the system be fixed?

This story is part of AlertNet’s special report Solutions for a hungry world

By Alex Whiting

LONDON (AlertNet) – Hear the word “famine” and many people imagine convoys of trucks piled high with sacks of grain arriving in a region devoid of food.

But in the 21st-century fight against hunger, aid agencies are increasingly deploying cash via food vouchers, text messages or smart cards with electronic chips. If they distribute food, it’s often food bought locally.

Changes to the international food aid system – including early warning systems, greater professionalisation of the aid system, as well as new ways of delivering aid – have reduced the number of famines and made aid more effective. But the system is still overly reliant on food imports from donor countries, experts say.

Although imported food is sometimes necessary – such as when massive floods destroyed crops in Pakistan in 2010 – it can increase poverty and hunger by putting local farmers and traders out of business. It’s also expensive to transport and store, and sometimes arrives rotten after a long voyage.

But in the rush to save lives in an emergency, aid agencies often still import food.

"The default in sudden-onset disasters is still ... ‘let's try and quickly get some food in’ – rather than looking at what's available in-country, how can we support local markets and systems," said Camilla Knox-Peebles, Oxfam Great Britain’s senior emergency food security and livelihoods adviser.

"The assumption ... that everything has gone to a standstill – as we saw after the earthquake in Haiti – is just wrong. Yes, there's chaos ... but it's not standstill."

When a massive earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital in 2010, some aid agencies quickly handed out food vouchers and cash for people to buy their own food, as well as setting up soup kitchens and distributing food.

The U.N. Development Programme and World Food Programme (WFP) launched massive cash-for-work and cash-for-food programmes to help people buy enough to eat and to inject cash into the local economy. By the end of 2010, they had hired more than 240,000 people to clear rubble and rubbish from the streets of the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince.


Aid agencies have also developed ways of transferring money electronically that are faster, cheaper and more traceable than handing out cash in envelopes.

The Pakistan government gave flood survivors pre-paid cards and a pin number that they could use in the nearest ATM. The World Food Programme sends Iraqi refugees in Syria e-vouchers via their mobile phones. Aid agencies using smart cards in Kenya can top them up and track how the money is spent.

Another advantage of such systems is that the most vulnerable can be registered electronically before a crisis hits.

“If systems are set up in advance … that just means that you’ll be that much faster, that much more effective when the disaster strikes,” Knox-Peebles said.

There are a few problems with these systems, however, according to research by the Cash Learning Partnership. Some of the poorest may struggle to use the technology. Women do not always have the same access to mobile phones as men. And lack of infrastructure can create problems rolling out the systems.


When food aid is used to address long-term hunger, it can change the way people eat and create lasting problems. In central-west Nepal, a food-for-work programme run by a major U.N. agency, aimed at tackling acute hunger, began offering local people rice, which is not indigenous to that mountainous, arid part of the country.

"Now people are used to rice and trying to cultivate it themselves, even though it doesn't grow well," said Janani Vivekananda, senior programme officer at London-based peace-building organisation International Alert.

"They've stopped producing root vegetables and grains like buckwheat that don't need massive irrigation, and they have lots of paddy that requires irrigation," she added.

Worse, the programme is being phased out since the area is no longer judged to be in severe humanitarian crisis. That has led to political tensions as rice – now the local staple – is withdrawn.

"No government can say, 'We won't give you rice' since rice access is an issue across the sub-continent'," Vivekananda said.


Still, the food-aid system has seen big improvements, driven in part by economic changes around the world.

International food aid used to come in one form only: free food shipped mainly from the United States and Europe, which enabled donors to dispose of their food surpluses while helping to reduce global hunger.

But in the past 20 years, Western food surpluses and budgets for food aid have shrunk, and aid agencies have developed more effective ways of delivering aid.

“There are shortcomings, to be sure, but the system is much improved," said Chris Barrett, a professor at Cornell University, who has researched the impacts of buying food aid locally, and is co-editor of the book "Uniting on Food Assistance: The case for transatlantic cooperation".

Today, "the chief problem ... is timeliness. Donors are too slow to commit resources and too inflexible about the sorts of resources they're able to commit," Barrett said.

The United States is the largest food donor, giving the bulk of its assistance in the form of in-kind food aid, transported from U.S. farms on U.S. ships.

Attempts at making this aid more flexible have been blocked by powerful U.S. agricultural and shipping lobbies. But since 2008, the U.S. Congress has agreed to supply extra funds for more flexible food assistance, including cash payments.

In 2011, the United States gave WFP $241 million in cash, on top of $1 billion in in-kind food aid and the cost of shipping it.

"The U.S. strategy is to provide cash for local and regional purchases and tap strategically pre-positioned food stocks at the onset of an emergency as part of a first wave of response,” said WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella.

Afterward, the strategy shifts to “donating in-kind commodities that, taking into account shipping times from the U.S., will arrive several months later to meet continuing emergency food needs," Casella said.

The European Commission, by comparison, has not given WFP any in-kind food since 2007. Its cash donation in 2011 was $258 million.

Cash donations to WFP, the largest multilateral food agency, have risen dramatically in recent years. In 2010, the agency received $2.5 billion in cash and nearly $1.3 billion in food.

This was up from 2007 figures of $1.5 billion in cash and $1.2 billion in in-kind food aid.

Whichever form aid takes, agencies have to tread carefully to decide which aid tools to use and how they might affect the region in the short and longer term, experts say.

Food aid risks being diverted by armed groups to fund conflicts or by governments to use as a political tool. It can hurt local markets and trade routes. And injecting cash into a region can potentially increase inflation.

"Since food assistance has become so much more diverse ... it requires much more analysis and thinking and that's traditionally an area where humanitarian assistance is bad," said Julia Steets, associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI).

"People are always in a rush, it's always an urgency thing, which I think creates a lot of the biggest problems in the whole sector," Steets said.


In drought-prone areas, food aid often kicks in only when farmers have sold their animals and eaten their seeds and have nothing left to fall back on. This forces them deeper into poverty and makes them even more vulnerable to the following crisis.

Several schemes are being piloted to try to address this.

In Ethiopia, which has a history of severe food crises, agencies have established an insurance scheme that gives farmers payouts when rains fail, well before they have exhausted their coping strategies.

A similar insurance scheme has been established in Haiti to help small-scale entrepreneurs in the event of a hurricane, flood or earthquake.

In both cases, aid agencies pay at least part of a monthly premium to insurance companies on behalf of the farmer or entrepreneur.

WFP and the African Union have set up the African Risk Capacity insurance scheme that aims to give participating governments payouts when extreme drought, flood or cyclones strike, and reduce their reliance on international aid.

Many experts say both donors and local governments need to address the root causes of hunger to halt the cycle of recurring food crises in Africa.

"In the long term, the answers lie within developing countries themselves, including supporting local food production, protecting the poorest and most vulnerable, making food affordable and ensuring a strong national response to impending crises," said Jan Egeland, U.N. emergency relief coordinator between 2003 and 2006, in a report on last year's Horn of Africa crisis published by Oxfam and Save the Children.

Barrett of Cornell University said that although donors and local governments need to invest more in longer term development, money should not be shifted away from emergency funds as it would amount to “turning a blind eye” to the most vulnerable.

"It concerns me terribly that there are people who talk relatively abstractly about needing to move humanitarian response budgets over to longer-term development programmes,” he said.

“… That's a dangerous and terribly cold-hearted approach.”

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