Cash-Strapped Food Agency Struggles To Feed Poor

In Depth

For the first time in history, more than 1 billion people are hungry, according to the World Food Programme. The organization is worried about meeting these staggering needs and is concerned that if things continue to worsen, a repeat of last year's food riots may occur.

As head of the world's largest food aid program, Josette Sheeran has a pretty clear view about how the global financial crisis is affecting the poorest of the poor. She says in most countries in Africa, food prices have not come down since last year's spike, and the financial crisis has meant that remittances are drying up.

"For the world's bottom billion, the financial crisis is having an effect on their ability to access food. Now add in the increased cost of food, and it's a double whammy that is dangerous and destabilizing and a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions," she says.

Sheeran says the World Food Programme tries to reach at least 10 percent of the billion people in need, but that is only possible in good financial times.

"We're facing a dangerous and unprecedented shortfall in emergency funding. Our budget for this year of assessed approved needs is $6.7 billion, and we expect with our projections in working with governments to come in at $3.7 billion," she says.

Sheeran says the Obama administration has stepped up to the plate. Still, she comes to Washington, literally, with a cup in hand that shows the rations that needy people receive from the food program.

The organization's director of public policy and communications, Nancy Roman, says these rations are now being cut everywhere from Kenya to Bangladesh. As well, the group is scaling back other programs, including one in Central America that moves food supplies into the region ahead of hurricane season.

"We're heading into hurricane season right now, and we don't have the funds to pre-position," Roman says.

But fundraising is hard in these times, as countries around the world try to pull themselves out of their own financial straits. Sheeran says the World Food Programme is only trying to provide a basic safety net.

"If we look at the amount invested to stabilize the world after the financial crisis — trillions of dollars — we are talking about an investment that is a small proportion of even 0.1 percent of that to help the world's most vulnerable people get through this very hard time by ensuring they get at least one meal a day," she says.

It's not all bad news, however. Sheeran, a former Bush administration official, praises the Obama administration for its focus on food security issues around the globe. And she says the U.S. is making it easier for the World Food Programme in places like Pakistan, by giving some of the donations now in cash, rather than only in-kind. That allows the group to buy on local markets, which it is trying to do everywhere.

"That flexibility is key. When we buy locally, as we are doing in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and others, even in conflict zones, the people we are buying from, the poor farmers, don't need food aid. They now have an income and a guaranteed sale," she says.

Canada is now a 100 percent cash contributor, and she says the U.S. is looking to increase the proportion of aid it gives in cash as well, something she is encouraging on her latest trip to Washington.

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