April 20, 2012 | By Roger Thurow

Food Aid's Evolution: Landing a One-Two Punch against Hunger

As the rainy season arrived and the planting began in East Africa at the end of March, drought and hunger continued to creep across West Africa.  The African Paradox of feast and famine was forming again.

The U.S. response of food aid was quick off the mark, as it often is.  But this time there appeared to be a greater nimbleness, illustrating the evolving shift in the way the U.S. delivers its food aid.

The World Food Program announced that it had received more than $100 million through the U.S. Agency for International Development to provide urgent food assistance to some 9 million people across the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad.  Of that contribution, $28 million was in cash to purchase food from African farmers and to support programs in which the impacted population receives vouchers to buy their food on local markets rather than getting handouts of food from a distant land.  The U.S. donation also included an initial consignment of nearly 7,500 metric tons of food allocated from stocks pre-positioned in strategic locations in or near Africa, which would reduce the delivery time from four months to four weeks.  Additional food supplies would be shipped from the U.S. to arrive in August when the hunger is expected to be at its peak.

Allan Jury, the WFP’s director of U.S. relations, hailed Washington’s “multi-pronged approach” to the crisis in the Sahel.

“The cash contributions and use of pre-positioned stocks enables us to deliver quick, life-saving assistance in the short-term with significant in-kind food assistance arriving just at the peak of the crisis when the needs are greatest,” he said.This combination punch against hunger is a departure from traditional U.S. food aid practice, and a welcome development.  For decades, the U.S. government mandated that all food aid be American-grown crops transported on American-flagged ships.  Even though these requirements added several months to the food aid deliveries and doubled the cost, any change to a more flexible system that included cash purchases of food nearer to the stricken areas was vehemently opposed by entrenched interest groups intent on making sure that American farmers, commodity processors and shippers – along with the hungry recipients — received maximum benefit of the aid.  It was just a couple of years ago, as budget pressures rose and evidence mounted that more lives could be saved with a more flexible approach to food aid, that the U.S. government began a pilot project to include cash purchases abroad in addition to the food shipments from home.

Much of that evidence was coming from the WFP’s own local purchase program called Purchase for Progress.  This program encouraged African farmers to grow more and better-quality crops and to practice better harvesting and storing methods.  As the WFP bought their maize and beans and peas and lentils, the farmers found incentive to further increase production and quality.  Purchase for Progress gained steam under WFP executive director Josette Sheeran and should continue to build under her successor, Ertharin Cousin.

The U.S. has for many years been the WFP’s largest donor, with the vast bulk of its contributions being in U.S. grown commodities.  Now the U.S. has also become one of the largest cash contributors to the WFP.  For 2012, the US contribution to the WFP has reached the equivalent of $365 million, with $36 million in cash.

But now the progress to a quicker, cheaper, more efficient, greater life-saving food aid program is under threat by the budget slashers who continue to see foreign aid, and particularly food aid, as a prime target.  The 2013 budget passed by the House would eliminate the one program, the President’s Feed the Future initiative, that is hastening food aid reform.

The explanation of the budget cutters is rife with misconceptions.  They insist it is better to reduce costs in the current food aid programs than to start new initiatives like Feed the Future.  Lowering the cost of food aid would mean more local purchase, which spares the huge expense of shipping.  In order for the WFP and other hunger relief groups to do more local purchase, African farmers need to be growing more food.  And that is a main aim of Feed the Future’s agricultural development goals.  It is a simple progression, a crisp one-two punch against the deficit: Grow more in Africa, ship less from America.

Speaking of the World Food Program, check out this video marking the WFP’s 50th anniversary:

http://www.wfp.org/50-takes-on-hunger?icn=homepage-50takes-on-hunger&ici...

It features an eclectic mix: Bill Gates, rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and me…among others.

Archive

| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

| By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

| By Roger Thurow

Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

| By Roger Thurow

Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

| By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

| By Roger Thurow

Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

| By Roger Thurow

The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

| By Roger Thurow

Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

| By Roger Thurow

Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

Multimedia

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »