The Challenge Of Feeding Hungry People In Hostile Environments

Published on 30 June 2010

Rebels around a car in Darfur, Sudan, where WFP provides monthly food rations to upwards of two million people displaced by the conflict that broke out in 2003. Copyright: WFP/Greg Barrow

 

A WFP truck convoy carrying desperately-needed food for thousands of people living on the brink of survival in a war-torn African nation gets stopped by gunmen at a checkpoint.  Before letting the convoy pass, the gunmen demand a “tax” and a few bags of food.  What do you do?

ROME -- A WFP truck convoy carrying desperately-needed food for tens of thousands of people living on the brink of survival in a war-torn African nation gets stopped by gunmen at a checkpoint.  Before letting the convoy pass, the gunmen demand a “tax” and a few bags of food for their own use.  What do you do?  Pay the tax and hand over the food, or turn back to base, leaving the starving to fend for themselves?

A mother in a camp for people displaced by vicious fighting between rebel fighters and government forces in the foothills of a mountain-range somewhere in Asia carefully divides up the food rations she has received from WFP.  She sets the lion’s share of the food aside for her youngest children, and parcels up a small portion for her eldest son who has been forced to fight alongside the rebels.  What should WFP do?  Stop distributing food to all the families in the camp because some might be going to the rebel fighters, or continue distributions as normal to avoid cutting off life-saving nutritional support for young children?

In the market place of a Central American country, a young man hawks a sack of WFP beans to a local trader.  His family have decided they’ll risk going hungry this month because they need to buy soap and a new pair of shoes so his younger sister can walk to school.  The next day the story appears in a national newspaper under a headline which says food aid is being traded on local markets.  What should WFP do?  Cancel all future food distributions in the area and risk rising levels of malnutrition, or continue in the knowledge that the vast majority of food will still be eaten by the hungry.

Daily challenges

These are real dilemmas faced by those of us who work at the frontlines of hunger.  Every day WFP staff make decisions that affect real people in tangible ways, “playing God” with people’s lives, deciding whether they will eat or not, whether their children will get the nutrition they need at critical moments of their physical and intellectual development.

Delivering food in dangerous places is challenging, and WFP has been doing it for almost half a century because without us, nobody else is going to step forward and take up the responsibility of ensuring that the hungriest  100 million around the world get the food they need every year.

Our work takes us to the places where the hungry live and in most cases these are remote, under-developed and dangerous. There are no profit-margins to be chased in feeding the hungry, and the moral incentive to save the lives of those caught in conflict, or natural disasters like droughts and floods is not always enough to drive people to act. That is why the WFP was established.

Tried and trusted

We’ve been feeding the hungry since the 1960s, learning, developing and refining the systems that we use to deliver food in operations that stretch from Biafra (Nigeria), through to Ethiopia, the Asian tsunami and the recent earthquake in Haiti.  Food assistance is monitored from the moment it leaves the warehouse to the point at which is handed over to hungry families. Operations are audited regularly. If checks and controls need tightening, measures are taken to do so.

But no system is perfect, especially where human hands are involved, and more so in environments when the fingers of those hands are often to be found resting on the trigger of an assault rifle. From the kernels of maize that may slip out of a gash in the side of a food sack as it is being loaded onto a truck, to the food that is stolen at check-points on the delivery route, there are chances that some will get diverted from its end destination.  But the systems we have in place ensure that this is minimal.

A safe bet

Perhaps understandably, the media tends to focus sharply on the small amount that doesn’t make its way into the hands of the hungry, rather than the huge amounts that do. But where food assistance is concerned, the best cannot be allowed to become the enemy of the very good.

WFP’s reputation is its strongest asset in persuading governments to mobilise food for the hungry. If governments want us to continue delivering this food in hostile and remote environments, where there is a real risk that people will starve if they don’t get help, then governments have to accept the levels of risk that come with this work. It’s a gamble, but WFP is still a safe bet.

The World Food Programme will host a day long Hunger Event in London on 2 July in conjunction with Reuters AlertNet.  The event, titled “The F-Word,” Hunger in the Media, will examine the complexity of reporting on hunger issues, and the difficult decisions humanitarians have to make when trying to reach the hungry.  The event takes place from 10:00 to 16:00 UK time.  Those interested in the debate can pose questions and comment via a live blog.

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about the author

Greg Barrow

Head of Liaison Office in London

 Gregory Barrow heads WFP's liaison office in London. Before joining WFP, Greg worked for 14 years as a TV and radio journalist for the BBC.