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close this bookTackling Hunger in a World Full of Food: Tasks Ahead for Food Aid (WFP)
close this folder2. The first goal of food aid: saving life
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe damage wrought by crises
View the documentFood aid in emergencies
View the documentRehabilitation and crisis prevention


2.1 The right to life is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. Saving people whose ability to gain access to food has been curtailed is the first principle of humanitarian intervention. People have to survive before they can benefit from, and contribute to, sustainable development.

People must survive to contribute to development

2.2 Food is a fundamental resource for saving life. There are some emergency situations in which the provision of cash rather than food aid, or the monetization of food commodities to stabilize prices is warranted. This could be the case, for example, where localized crop failure leads to extreme hunger in the presence of marketable food in neighbouring regions (as in parts of Ethiopia during the 1980s). Yet, the number of emergencies in which this applies are relatively few, and in most cases hungry women and children, who make up 70 percent of the innocent victims of armed conflict, need direct food assistance.
2.3 The number of "complex emergencies" has grown sharply in recent years. In the mid-1990s, there were at least 50 serious armed conflicts ongoing in the world, with an increasing concentration of frequency and destructiveness in poorer developing countries (Sivard 1994; Hansch 1995). These crises are "complex" not so much in their manifestation of human suffering (which may differ little from suffering during other emergencies), but in their scale (often regional rather than national), and the complexity of their causes and potential resolutions, which often have political and military dimensions.

Acute hunger is increasingly found where there is political instability

2.4 The rise in "complex emergencies" has meant that acute hunger is increasingly found in the presence of political instability which compounds inadequate past investments, infrastructure deficiencies, rapid population growth and environmental limitations to increased productivity. All of this makes the task of tackling hunger more difficult. The compounding of constraints to the attainment of food security is all-too apparent in sub-Saharan Africa.
2.5 As conflict has taken over from drought as the primary cause of famine and human displacement, the numbers of refugees, internally displaced persons and non-displaced but asset-stripped households has grown sharply, particularly in Africa. The total number of refugees has doubled approximately every 6 years since the mid-1970s. By 1994, the number had reached approximately 25 million, of whom roughly one third were found in Africa (UNHCR 1995; UNECOSOC 1995). In addition, the number of Internally Displaced Persons reached an estimated 25-30 million in 1995, as many as 60 percent of them in Africa (United Nations 1995c; UNHCR 1995). The global total of people uprooted by conflict or political disturbance has reached roughly 50 million-an average of 1 million people for every conflict.
2.6 What is more, the impact of hunger due to conflict and population displacement is not limited to the individuals involved. Host communities, typically as poor as the poor coming to them for help, are drawn into the dislocation. The hosts are affected as commodity prices rise, labour markets are affected, local or national development activities are curtailed, and widespread natural resource damage results from new concentrations of displaced people needing land and fuel to survive. The recent growth in numbers of refugees and displaced people shows no signs of abating, and is the least responsive to progress made in the realms of food production or distribution. The solution to large-scale population displacements is typically political rather than simply economic or environmental.

The damage wrought by crises

2.7 The human, productivity, and opportunity costs of complex emergencies are too high, however measured. Households disrupted by armed conflict are vulnerable to hunger over long periods of time. Nations experiencing conflict see past gains in development eroded or destroyed (Stewart 1993). Destruction in countries such as Mozambique, Cambodia or Nicaragua only adds to the cost of development investments in the future.
2.8 What is more, the resources dedicated to humanitarian assistance, peace-keeping and rehabilitation are increasing. Financial disbursements for interventions from OECD countries (excluding food aid) expanded from US$ 809 million in 1989 to US$ 3.2 billion in 1993 (IFRCRCS 1995). The United Nations system allocated more than US$ 5 billion on peace-keeping operations between 1991 and 1995--just in Africa (United Nations 1995a).

Better preparedness against crises is essential in the war against hunger

2.9 Growing more food is essential, but will not in itself solve the problem of hunger. There is a need at local, national and international levels for better preparedness against crises, and more attention must be paid to the needs of hungry people once emergencies have passed-the rehabilitation phase should lay a solid foundation for development. Better interaction is also needed between development and relief professionals to ensure investments that reduce household vulnerability to disasters. In all of this, food aid has a major role to play.

Food aid in emergencies

2.10 The share of food aid dedicated to saving lives in emergencies (both natural and man-made), has risen from 10 percent during the late 1970s to roughly 30 percent in the mid-1990s (Table 2). This represented an increase from less than 1 million tons per annum in the 1970s to between 3 and 4 million tons in 1994/95, with the sharpest rise apparent in the years since 1989/90. The proportion channelled to sub-Saharan Africa has grown from an average of 12 percent during the 1970s to 36 percent in 1994/95 (Table 1).
2.11 Food aid for emergencies is provided in a number of ways: (1) as a food reserve to be released onto the market when local food prices rise beyond a planned threshold; (2) as a ration provided to targeted households or communities to maintain at least minimum calorie consumption for during a crisis; (3) as a meal provided directly to most needy individuals, generally children, through a supplementary or rehabilitation feeding programme; or (4) as a wage good paid to participants in food-for-work projects that are initiated to provide an employment-based safety-net during times of food shortfall.
2.12 Each of these mechanisms has its niche according to prevailing conditions (prices, policies, degree of hunger, and institutional support). They are successful if they manage to sustain life, and more successful if they do so in a cost-effective manner. The shift from development towards relief carries cost implications, however. Since many emergencies occur in geographically remote regions of the world, the logistical hurdles in the way of rapid delivery of food aid are huge. Consequently, more cash is needed to deliver relief food than other forms of food aid. For example, it costs an average of around $2.20 to deliver $1.00 worth of food aid in an emergency, compared with 30 to 100 cents required to deliver the same amount of food to a development project.
2.13 Whatever the cost, food aid is never wasted if it saves lives. But it is unfortunate that more cannot be used to enhance those lives. It would be preferable to use food aid for purposes other than saving people from starvation. A bag of cereal used to keep a child alive in a refugee camp is a bag that could have been used to support a clinic or school-lunch programme, both aimed at long-term human development.

Rehabilitation and crisis prevention

2.14 Food aid plays a role beyond human survival; it is also a resource for investment in long-term development. Emergency operations must be designed to facilitate a smooth and prompt transition of operations from relief towards development. Attainment of stable livelihoods after a crisis demands more than long-term feeding of vulnerable groups.

Saving lives, saving livelihoods

2.15 The human damage caused by severe hunger is only a part of the overall problem. A depletion of resources caused by large-scale hunger, or the creation of refugee camps, carries the implications of food insecurity far beyond the realm of a discrete event. Once a disaster has passed, even a natural disaster, the process of household-, and nation-rebuilding can be severely impeded by the loss of people, community integration, livestock, savings and even the government's capacity to tax and invest. Thus, once conditions have stabilized and minimal food consumption has been established among affected people, food aid must be used in varied ways to help enhance the human skills and economic assets of a food-assisted population through nutrition and other training programmes, as well as through community, infrastructure and agricultural development activities.
2.16 The first task is to prevent people whose lives have been saved from slipping back into hunger again. This may involve supplementary feeding for still-vulnerable groups combined with a carefully phased reduction in the scale and sized of more general distribution activities. The second task is to help regain or rebuild the asset base and productive capacities of people and the local economy. Roads and markets, schools and clinics often need to be rebuilt in war-torn countries such as Mozambique, Cambodia and Ethiopia. The use of local private sector capabilities for the transport of food through private traders also contributes to a re-establishment and strengthening of markets. Increasing amounts of food aid are being used to support programmes to demobilize thousands of combatants, to de-mine once productive farmland, to resettle long-term refugees, and, importantly, to rebuild through food-for-work the roads, bridges, and market-places upon which secure agricultural growth and economic recovery will depend. In other words, emergency operations can leave lasting results beyond saving life.