The WFP: on the front line of hunger

How do you solve a problem like world hunger? With generosity and public will, says Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organisation

Of the litany of fears burdening Syrian refugees in the Middle East, the question of how they would feed their children was, until recently, not among them. Now it is. In September, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said it would be slashing food aid to refugee families in Jordan due to a $278m gap in funding for the region. Those earning $2 or more a day would be cut from the aid programme in an effort to conserve funds for the most fragile; refugees existing on less than $1 a day. It is, says executive director Ertharin Cousin, an act of sifting the desperate from the more desperate. For the world’s largest humanitarian agency, it is also a matter of survival.

“When I talk to refugees now, they tell me stories about having to send their children out to work instead of school, because they are so worried about food,” Cousin says in a call from Rome. She’d returned hours earlier from Cairo, the final stop in a tour of the Middle East. “But this is the reality of the situation we face. We need additional funding.”

"Around the world, when we have the right resources and the capital, we can change lives"

The WFP, the UN’s food-aid agency, is a safety net beneath the ranks of the global hungry. In 2014, it fed 80 million people in 82 countries – almost two-thirds of whom were children – doling out more than 3m tonnes of food-aid in the form of school meals, handouts and emergency relief.

On any given day, the agency has some 20 ships, 70 aircraft and 5,000 trucks in play, dispensing WFP-stamped rations to impoverished or disaster-struck communities around the globe. From Ethiopia, to Yemen, to Sudan and Pakistan: the WFP – for many of the world’s poorest – is the thin line separating them from starvation.

“Around the world, when we get it right; when we have the right resources and the capital, we can change lives,” says Cousin. “But how much assistance we can provide depends on how much money we receive.”

In the Middle East, the line is fraying. Convulsed by conflict, the scale of the humanitarian disaster in the region swells by the day. Fighting in Syria, now in its fifth year, has driven nearly 12 million from their home. Many have sought sanctuary in the crammed refugee camps that dot Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Sunk in poverty, with few options for work, a WFP stipend – at a maximum of $14 per person, per month – can be their only means of securing food. In Iraq, war has displaced 3 million people. More than half of them rely, at least in part, on the WFP to eat.

In Yemen, the outlook is equally bleak. Ongoing war has starved the country of supplies, and impeded aid. A mix of food shortages, diminished fuel and a lack of clean water has created “the dawn of a perfect storm” for destitute Yemenis, the WFP said in August, with Cousin warning starkly of famine if aid workers were not given urgent access. At last count, 6.1 million people in the Arab state urgently needed food.

“The nature of the work we do is being changed dramatically, by the number of refugees we have in the world, the scale of their needs and the number of crises linked to conflicts,” Cousin tells Philanthropy Age. “In the case of a quick onset emergency – a typhoon, or an earthquake – you provide emergency relief, and then you begin recovery. With war, there is no recovery. The same event occurs every day.”

"We are raising as much, or more, as we’ve ever raised. It’s that the number of crises is outpacing the generosity"

Like most aid agencies, the WFP often exists on a funding knife-edge. Wholly donor-funded, it was birthed by the UN in 1961 as a multinational institution able to respond rapidly to hunger crises and deliver food to the needy. In 2014, it raised a record $5.38bn, 27 per cent more than the previous year, but it is still facing a fiscal reckoning.

The agency’s response to Syria alone requires $278m to stay afloat until the end of the year. It’s not that donors aren’t still digging deep, says Cousin, but simply that the quickening tempo of global disasters has decimated its reserves.

“We are raising as much, or more, as we’ve ever raised. Our traditional donors are as generous as ever. It’s that the number of crises is outpacing the generosity,” she says. “We need those who have given to us to give more. And we need more donors to support the gap.”

In part, this means rattling the tin in new markets. It also requires newly minted countries – those that are rising in the new world order – to chip in as their fortunes change. China is a case in point. Once a major WFP beneficiary, today it is a donor.

“It’s not good enough that the United States and the UK, and Australia and Japan give money. We need new donors, who see our goals as part of their goals, as well,” says Cousin. “We need donors around the world to realise we represent universal humanitarian principles; not just those in western societies.”

Still, the funding dilemma does raise the question of whether the wider aid system – which rests heavily on emergency appeals to keep supply chains running month-to-month – must evolve to reflect that situations in Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, are spiraling and need long-term cash. Do regular multimillion-dollar funding shortfalls suggest the industry is stuttering? Cousin says not. “I wouldn’t say it’s broken. The system is working. But the reality is that it needs more gas.”

"The reality is we know what will end hunger, and it requires one tool that we don’t have today, which is global public will"

But how do you solve a problem like world hunger? It is a question that has preoccupied Chicago-born Cousin since she took charge of the WFP in 2012. Her term has been a baptism of fire. On her watch, the agency has grappled with West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, a post-typhoon Philippines, earthquake-hit Nepal and the largest global refugee crisis in decades, alongside protracted emergencies in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, to name just two. On any given day, the WFP is firefighting on multiple fronts. Set against this backdrop, its stated goal of ‘zero hunger’ is, to say the least, audacious – but, insists Cousin, one that is possible to achieve.

“The reality is we know what will end hunger, and it requires one tool that we don’t have today, which is global public will,” she says. “The will to universally address the issues of hunger. It is a solvable problem.”

Hunger is a febrile thing. An affliction shared across much of the developing world, its presence is a trigger for uprisings and conflict, and a fetter to economic growth. Globally, nearly 800 million people do not have enough food, with poor nutrition the cause of nearly half of deaths in children under five. In Asia alone, two-thirds of the population is affected by hunger. Around the world, lack of food kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Few know this better than Cousin. She recalls a visit to western Ethiopia’s Gambella region, home to thousands of refugees who have fled years of fighting in South Sudan. One mother had walked for three weeks, accompanied by her four children, to reach the camp. In the absence of food, and carrying her baby, she had fed them water lilies during the journey.

“I was talking to a physician, when I heard a cry. It was a wail,” remembers Cousin. “It was this mother. And the physician said: ‘We lost one. She didn’t get here fast enough.’ The baby, not even two months old, died. That mother did everything in her power to save her child, and still it wasn’t enough. That sticks with you.”

As the global humanitarian landscape evolves, so too has the WFP. The agency today is engaged in vastly more than just food relief. In the Middle East and other regions, it has rolled out cash and vouchers in place of traditional food rations; more nimble tools that allow beneficiaries to buy food and goods themselves, and help to shore up local markets. WFP itself uses its purchasing clout to back smallholder farmers, last year buying 81 per cent of its food in developing markets.

Resilience-building activities, which see vulnerable people given food assistance, in exchange for building or repairing vital community assets – anything from roads, to planting forests – reached 12.7 million people last year. More than 75,500 schools are on the WFP’s books. In 2014, some 17 million children received meals or take-home rations from the agency. The scale of its operations are staggering, and often unseen.

Another shift has been the use of technology to modernise and streamline its approach. Cousin has rolled out an SMS and voice call system that lets the WFP assess needs in distressed locations, without sending staff, helping to trim time and money. When disaster does strike, the agency now benefits from a network of supply depots around the world, including Dubai, able to deploy aid at a moment’s notice.

"Every culture, every religion in the world believes we should feed the hungry. It is at the base of our humanity"

“Hunger is a base need of every person in the world,” says Cousin. “I’ve said it before; every culture, every religion in the world believes we should feed the hungry. It is at the base of our humanity that people should not go hungry.”

For all the heartwrenching aspects of her role, Cousin still sees the opportunities. In the last 25 years, the number of hungry people globally has shrunk from 1 billion to 795 million, and the prevalence of undernourishment has almost halved. With determination, she says, eradication of world hunger is within reach for the current generation.

“Let me tell you the best part of my job,” she says. “Wherever I go, it’s the children. Kids give you hope. No matter what they’ve been through, you give them some food, and they will run and laugh and play. They believe that life’s going to be ok.”