UN World Food Programme 101

UN World Food Programme

Are you guys enjoying the “101” series? I have learned a TON researching for these monthly posts giving a basic rundown of different government feeding programs. If you want to go back and check out the other entries in this series, see: SNAP (food stamps) 101, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) 101, and NSLP (school lunch program) 101.

This month we’re looking outside the U.S. at the biggest food relief program in the world – The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

The United Nations World Food Programme’s mission is to “Fight Hunger Worldwide.” From their website: “In emergencies, we get food to where it is needed, saving the lives of victims of war, civil conflict and natural disasters. After the cause of an emergency has passed, we use food to help communities rebuild their shattered lives.”

The WFP was founded in 1961. It was an American idea, and the United States has always been its biggest supporter, paying about 1/3 of the WFP’s annual cost. The other 2/3 are raised by donations from other governments around the world as well as corporate donors. The UN oversees the WFP but does not provide any of the funding.

There are 14,000 people around the world working for the WFP. They provide aid to about 80 million people per year in 75 countries. Much of the aid is in the form of emergency supplies in areas affected by man-made and natural disasters. They also teach farming skills and provide assistance to small farmers in developing nations.

This program, and foreign aid in general, are not without controversy. In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Kenyan economist James Shikwati said, “As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa’s problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn’t even notice.” Shikwati’s argument is that much of the foreign aid never gets to the people who need it. Instead, the capital is siphoned off by corrupt officials and used to bribe and control the population. Additionally, direct aid floods the market with free goods, driving down commodity prices to the point where local growers are pushed out of the market. Summed up and (undoubtedly) oversimplified, Shikwati’s argument is ‘give a man a fish and fishermen can’t make a living.’ Many respected economists, including Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University, disagree with Shikwati’s assessment, but he raises an interesting argument.

Shikwati’s argument applies best to chronically impoverished developing nations with corrupt leadership. Many of the nations benefiting from the WFP are not always desperately poor. They need emergency assistance because corrupt régimes cut off and starved out segments of the population, invading armies damaged their food systems, or natural disasters devastated their land. The UN World Food Programme provides quick relief at places like refugee camps, where there is no local market to flood, and the aid is generally hand delivered to the population in need, not given to the potentially corrupt government officials who could use it to further their own agenda.

I’ll close with a quote from a man interviewed in “War and Hunger,” from the CBS network program 60 Minutes (Link below. I highly recommend watching the segment, it focuses on the WFP’s work in Syria, though it does contain some alarming and sad stories). The subject remained unnamed to protect his safety and the safety of his family:

“(Starvation) can destroy your soul, your mind, your beliefs, before it can destroy your body. Nobody in this world, no matter who he is, deserves to die from hunger. Nobody.”

Links to sources for more information, including the Shikwati interview, Sach’s rebuttal, and the 60 Minutes video segment:

UN World Food Programme

UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Der Spiegel interview with Kenyan economist James Shikwati (in English)

NY Times Article reacting to Shikwati’s Der Spiegel interview

Charity Navigator assessment of U.S. branch, WFP USA

“War and Hunger” 60 Minutes (CBS) video on WFP and Syrian refugees

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