Delivering Direct Food Aid a Complex Task

Emergency food aid is critical to impoverished nations. Raymond Offenheiser of Oxfam America and Randy Martin of Mercy Corps — non-governmental organizations involved in delivering food to Africa and other parts of the world — outline pressing needs during "the hungriest part of the hunger season."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

And during his visit to Washington, DC, this week, Prime Minister Blair had hoped to persuade President Bush to double America's foreign aid budget for Africa. President Bush refused that request, but he did release $674 million of mostly food aid to relieve famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The president said US contributions to Africa will increase over time, but that aid must be steered more strategically to make a difference.

We're joined now by two people who know firsthand how essential direct food aid can be and the complications it can cause. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, joins us in our studios.

Thank you for being with us.

Mr. RAYMOND OFFENHEISER (Oxfam America): Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And Randy Martin, director of Global Emergency Operations for Mercy Corps, joins us from Khartoum, Sudan.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. RANDY MARTIN (Mercy Corps): Pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: And, Mr. Martin, let's turn to you. You've just come out of Darfur. Give us some idea, if you can, where the aid is reaching, where it needs to reach, and what more needs to be done.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, right now, particularly with regard to food, there's a lot of concern. We're going into the second planting season in a row where farmers have been displaced from their farms. So they're unable to produce the crops that feed Darfur. So we're looking at a displaced population of 1.8 million in Darfur who need food aid in addition to the host population, the urban population, that depends on those farmers for producing food. So the total number of people who need food aid right now in Darfur is about 3.2 million as we go into the hungriest part of the hunger season, as they call it--July, August and September as the rains begin.

SIMON: Mr. Offenheiser, help us understand. When we say that there are more than three million people who need food aid, you just don't put enough food for three million people in a bag and drop it down in the middle of somewhere. Help us understand all the different elements that are necessary to bring food assistance to an area of the world.

Mr. OFFENHEISER: In terms of the way it's all put together, you know, the major producing countries, like the United States, which provides 50 percent of all food aid around the world, contribute food in a variety of different forms. Much of the food assistance that comes from the United States comes from farmers in the American Middle West in the form of grain supplies. And that grain, particularly in years when there is surplus supply, is shipped by the American grain shipping companies to points around the world as part of a whole program on food aid that's coordinated by the United States government.

What happened would be that food aid would arrive in ports, be managed by the United Nations agencies at the point of arrival, and then begin to find its way into the country through non-governmental organizations working in that country as well as food distribution programs of the national government. So in a particular case like Afghanistan during the five-year famine in Afghanistan, Mercy Corps, for example, might be assigned a particular province to deliver food aid. Oxfam might be assigned another province. CARE might be assigned another province. And we would all rely on the World Food Program to deliver the large stocks to us. And, if you will, they're the arteries in the system, and we're the capillaries.

SIMON: Mr. Martin, you've been around. Are there effects of direct food aid that can sometimes create complications?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. It's--and food aid, it's a blunt instrument. It saves thousands and thousands of lives, but it doesn't come, you know, without a cost. I mean, it's very important to monitor the impact that the food aid is having on markets. It's very important to look carefully at how the political interests in the area are manipulating food aid. It's very important to be able to phase out food aid in an appropriate manner at the appropriate time. There's a number of things that have to be monitored very carefully for food aid to be effective. And it's, you know, frankly, a real challenge.

SIMON: Mr. Offenheiser, do Prime Minister Blair and President Bush have a different approach to some of these issues?

Mr. OFFENHEISER: Well, I think they both agree that there's a need for food aid for humanitarian relief, and that there needs to be support directed toward Africa. And I think that in the meeting this weekend in Europe where these issues will be discussed in a preliminary way in the lead-up to Gleneagles, there'll probably be some advancement made on contributions to the overall aid budgets, maybe not as much from the United States as Tony Blair would hope.

On food aid, I think it comes back to a larger debate in the United States about agricultural policy, about subsidies to the agricultural sector...

SIMON: And if American farmers cease to get some of those agricultural subsidies, would that enable more African farmers to compete on the world market?

Mr. OFFENHEISER: I think certainly it would because one of the effects of taking off the subsidies, I think, in the short run is agricultural prices will go up globally, and therefore it will stimulate production around the world. I think the challenge to the United States in some of the poorer countries is if we are willing to shift from providing direct commodity support--that is, in the form of products in kind--to cash as a way of promoting food production and providing food aid. Presently, our food-aid program is highly inefficient. Fifty percent of the value of every dollar in food aid actually goes to shippers and merchants and it actually isn't delivered in the form of real food aid to needy people. Whereas if you took that same dollar and you spent it buying food locally, you'd get a hundred percent of real food getting into the hands of people who need it.

SIMON: And you'd provide economic incentive to food producers in that country.

Mr. OFFENHEISER: You'd be stimulating the local economy, which is really what we're after.

SIMON: Randy Martin in Khartoum, the British government--Prime Minister Blair seem to be point to Mozambique as a real success story, certainly for British policy. I'm wondering if around the world you've seen an example of a smart and intelligent aid program that has provided immediate assistance but also worked on long-term questions.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I don't know the situation in Mozambique that well; I've worked more on emergencies than in a developmental context, but again, looking at an emergency situation, if you were to take Darfur right now. We're looking at 15 to 20 percent global acute malnutrition, so it's a matter of being smart about how you use food aid and how you cut off food aid. And part of that is restarting agricultural production. I mean, what people do when they get into these dire circumstances is, the last thing they eat is their seeds. And then they sell their tools. So for us to be successful, it means to start looking now at what kind of tools, what kind of not only seeds but seed multiplication programs we can put in place to help restart the production of local food.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. OFFENHEISER: Thank you, Scott.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

SIMON: In Khartoum, Randy Martin, director of global operations for Mercy Corps. And in our studios, Raymond Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America.

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SIMON: And it's 18 minutes past the hour.

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