WFP goes for a makeover

The work of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is no longer going to be only about delivering food, the former "food aid agency" announced in its new strategy for the next three years (2008-2011); it would now bill itself as a "food assistance agency".

Marc Cohen, research fellow at the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said the WFP has been moving "beyond the role of providing food, to facilitating access to food for some years now".

The agency's change of direction has been influenced by many of its donors – mostly the European Union (EU) members - who have been keen to break the link between overseas food aid and supporting their farmers. "They have increasingly encouraged WFP to procure food regionally," said Cohen. According to the EU, in 2004 all developed countries gave cash to the WFP, the only exception being the US, the agency's biggest donor.

WFP's strategic plan underlines its life-saving emergency aid, but also emphasises prevention, local purchases of food, and using targeted cash and voucher programmes when food is available locally but not accessible by the hungry.

''While WFP was initially created to dispose of food surpluses from developed countries, the Programme seems to be now ready to evolve in order to respond to hunger more effectively''

The agency will also look programmes to protect livelihoods in emergencies; invest in disaster preparedness and mitigation measures; and help countries build capacity to develop food policies.

"This strategic plan marks a revolution in food aid that supports local markets in breaking the cycle of hunger," said Josette Sheeran, WFP's Executive Director, at the conclusion of WFP's four-day Executive Board meeting in Rome last week. "This is not your grandmother's food aid, and just in time."

There are few food surpluses available in the developed world and the global food supply is also at a 25-year low, which has pushed food prices to their highest levels since the 1970s. In the first four months of 2008 WFP paid an average of US$430 a tonne for wheat, compared to $207 during the same period in 2007, an increase of 108 percent.

"The global situation reaffirms the fact that the WFP was and is headed in the right direction," said Cohen.

David Stevenson, WFP's head of policy agreed that "Our entry point will continue to be a response to emergencies," but added, "we are also looking at eradicating the root cause of hunger."

Sheeran pointed out that in the 1980s, 80 percent of WFP's work was developmental and 20 percent emergency responses, but this has now been now been reversed and 80 percent is now responding to emergencies.

"With this new plan, in a sense, they are trying to broaden their tools to implement the remaining 20 percent of their commitment to development," Cohen commented.

Boosting economies

According to Sheeran, the agency is also looking at boosting the economies of recipient countries. "I call this our 80-80-80 solution," she told WFP's Board members in Rome.

"Eighty percent of our cash for food is spent in the developing world, 80 percent of our ground transport is procured in the developing world, and 80 percent of our staff is hired locally in the developing world." WFP spends more than $2 billion on food, transport and staff in the developing world.

Frederic Mousseau, Humanitarian Policy Advisor with the UK-based development agency, Oxfam, noted that "While WFP was initially created to dispose of food surpluses from developed countries, the Programme seems to be now ready to evolve in order to respond to hunger more effectively."

Last year, WFP used its cash resources to purchase $612 million of food in 69 developing countries.

He lauded the emphasis on local purchases from small-scale farmers as "an essential direction to make food aid support local agriculture and markets rather than undermine them, as it has been the case in the past when food aid was part of the market development agenda of donor countries."

WFP has launched a new programme, Purchase for Progress (P4P) as part of its plan to benefit small-scale farmers and traders, as role-players in economies of recipient countries, said Stevenson. P4P was launched in Mozambique this year and will be rolled out in 19 other countries over the next five years.

The programme includes a basket of measures, such as an advance contract to purchase food directly from the small-scale farmers in developing countries, thereby ensuring they have access to funds to reinvest in agriculture; modifying the tender procedure to help small traders compete; and providing technical assistance to mill grain and fortify flour. "Several of these initiatives have been piloted in countries over the years," Stevenson said.

Climate change, which has not only increased the frequency of natural disasters but also poses a threat to food supply, has also affected WFP's move to tackle the causes of hunger. "In many regions climate change contributes to the destruction of livelihoods, reduces agricultural yields and threatens lives, pushing ever more people into desperation," said the WFP strategy document.

"Responding to those hunger challenges requires multi-faceted food assistance policies that can address food availability, food access and food utilisation problems."

Stevenson said the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) would continue to drive programmes geared to boosting food production, and WFP was also looking at strengthening partnerships, particularly in relation to the response to the global food crisis.

Oxfam's Mousseau cautioned that while his agency "welcomed" the new range of objectives and activities, "We think this new plan should not necessarily translate into more activities for WFP but rather better quality and effectiveness of WFP's work.

"This evolution, especially in the current context of global food crisis, should also encourage donors to broaden their approach to hunger, and fund more comprehensive interventions than just emergency food aid, using a wider range of instruments, supporting local capacities for the establishment of safety nets and the enhancement of people's resilience."

Daniel Maxwell, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Boston-based Tufts University, who pushed for a rethink of aid in a recent policy paper, said WFP's new set of objectives was a good mix.

"This represents a step in the right direction," he said. "There are lots of people who would prefer to keep WFP as a food aid agency, [and] some who would turn it into the UN's front-line emergency response agency."

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