Trying to put more in the food basket

A one-size-fits-all approach to the world's food crisis will not work; responses need to be tailored to fit country-specific needs, a senior UN official at the global food summit in Rome told IRIN on Thursday.

A new UN task force on the food crisis is analysing the situation in at least 45 affected countries to help develop action plans to meet urgent and long-term needs, said John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

Holmes, who is also the task force coordinator, said almost every country in the world had been affected by soaring food prices and would require a response. Food prices are at their highest level since the 1970s and have sparked unrest in at least 17 grain importing countries, most of them in Africa.

The need to formulate country-specific responses, including safety nets in the form of food, cash, vouchers or targeted feeding programmes, has been highlighted by several studies on the impact of the crisis on households.

Simulated studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that urban consumers, who usually do not produce food, are likely to be hit hardest, as would rural households in countries where land was not equitably distributed.

"The point is that net buyers - be it in urban or rural areas - are the worst affected," noted Henk-Jan Brinkman, chief of food security policy and markets at the World Food Programme (WFP).

"Besides, the scale of the crisis has varied according to the value of the dollar in each country," said Benjamin Davis, a senior FAO economist who did one of the FAO studies.

Cash/vouchers in urban areas

In the past, pushing general food aid or cash voucher programmes in urban areas would have been a no-no for WFP, which handles the bulk of the UN safety net programmes, because of the myriad problems in accurately targeting beneficiaries. But earlier this month it began a cash voucher distribution programme for 200,000 Burmese urban dwellers affected by Cyclone Nargis.

"It is part of our strategic plan to expand and increase cash voucher programmes, which will be up before our executive board next week," said WFP's Brinkman. "Cash vouchers work in an urban situation where markets are functioning, but cash vouchers will not become the main focus of our assistance.

"The kind of response, whether in the form of food, cash or vouchers, will be determined by [domestic] conditions, as markets might not be functioning in urban areas in all countries."

The taxpayers' response to cash-based safety nets can also vary. Davis pointed out that there are countries, particularly in Latin America, which do not favour cash transfers, "as taxpayers feel the money will probably be wasted, maybe on drink, and they prefer to hand out food".

Cash and vouchers are the preferred immediate safety net options in countries where markets and banking systems are operating reasonably well. "There is a shift away from food aid because of the problem of creating dependency," said Holmes.

There is also little spare food available. WFP has largely been dependent on food surpluses from the developed countries, such as the US and the European Union, but has had to change its approach to the cash-versus-food-aid debate "pretty radically", as "no one has any surpluses to donate anymore - we are increasingly getting cash," Holmes noted.

WFP is already present in 78 food-insecure countries. "We are looking at all of our operations and seeing where - with the help of our NGO partners - we can scale up activity, especially safety nets, to respond to the food crisis," said WFP spokesman Martin Pennar. "Clearly, each country is different, and our response must be tailored according to the specific needs and circumstances of every country."

Capacity problems

A World Bank survey found that not all countries have the same capacity to either scale up or put new safety net programmes in place. The study split countries into four categories in terms of their capacity to spend more money on safety nets:

  • those in weak financial health, with poor capacity to manage shocks brought on by the need to import more food, e.g. Burundi, Eritrea, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica and Nepal
  • those in somewhat stronger financial health, e.g. Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Honduras; or those where the situation was compounded by political crisis, e.g. Kenya and Pakistan
  • those with weak fiscal capacity to take on additional spending, even if thought a bit more financially sound, e.g. Mongolia and Zambia
  • those who have the capacity and the money to scale up, such as Indonesia, Mexico and Tunisia.

Talks with major financial institutions and donors are underway to "possibly provide grants" to countries unable to afford additional spending on food policy and importing food, said Holmes.

All countries are being encouraged to draw up a national action plan with the help of civil society and UN agencies, he added. These efforts will have to be monitored and coordinated in the long term.

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