26 August 2009

Interview with Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme

Today I post an interview I did with Josette Sheeran, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme. I wrote to her a couple of weeks ago after reading more headlines about how WFP was having to scrabble around for more funds to deal with the short and medium term causes and consequences of hunger. The old critiques of WFP--undermining local markets with food no-one really wants--are much diminished today. They are using cash to purchase food locally and making bigger efforts to reduce the transactions costs of buying from even the smallest smallholders. Often they are the only development agency operating in some of the most fragile contexts on earth. My view is that they deserve more support.

These are her answers to my questions. The forward purchasing mechanisms she highlights sound promising and her reminder that 18 years ago China was WFP's biggest programme is a reminder that hunger is not inevitable (and that UN agencies can improve the targeting of their programmes!).

Hunger today is a scandal. Don't tolerate it.

Haddad: We hear a lot about WFP in the media - much of it is about funding shortfalls rather than the important work you do in terms of staving off hunger and saving lives. How frustrating is this for you?

Sheeran: WFP typically reaches about 10 percent of the world's most desperately hungry people. Due to the food and financial crisis, the number of urgently hungry has climbed to over 1 billion for the first time in human history. In bad times WFP needs to be bigger, in better times smaller. This year, our analytical needs assessment has us planning to assist 108 million of the poorest and hungriest in 74 countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

To do this WFP must raise $6.7 billion this year. But as of mid-August, we have received just $2.5 billion. WFP is facing an unprecedented funding shortfall. As we rely entirely on voluntarily funding, we have had to reduce our beneficiary numbers or cut rations in countries such as Uganda, Bangladesh and Yemen. In some cases, we have had to suspend an activity entirely. Without a rapid and massive influx of funds, we will soon have to make even harder choices and even deeper cuts.

Haddad: What percentage of WFP’s time and other resources are spent raising funds?

Sheeran: Unlike many other organisations in the United Nations, WFP depends entirely on voluntary contributions, which come mostly from donor countries but also from multi-donor trust funds, foundations, businesses, and individuals. It’s important to note that more than 90 percent of all funds raised go directly towards feeding the hungry. This very low overhead is not only highly efficient, but also includes a very small proportion less than 1 percent – of WFP’s annual budget that is spend on fundraising and communications. We therefore strategically leverage as much earned media and free visibility as possible – news, the Internet, You Tube, word-of-mouth, online games, such as freerice.com. One of the reasons that the world so generously stepped forward last year in response to the food price crisis was because nations knew that our very low overhead and focus on field operations meant that more than 90percent of every dollar raised would go to help the hungry.

Haddad: Has anyone at the WFP undertaken an analysis of the impact on lives lost due to lack of donor response?

Sheeran: We are already in a crisis situation when a child dies of malnutrition-related causes every six seconds – that equals 5.1 million deaths or more than half of all under-five deaths in the world. If malnourished children do not get the correct nutritional support during the critical first two years of life, their brains and bodies will be permanently stunted and their futures forever compromised. If farming families that have seen their annual crops devastated by drought or floods lose their monthly food ration, they will eat their seeds and slaughter their cattle, leaving them destitute – and still hungry. And during the high food price crisis, we saw how hunger led to civil unrest as hungry communities rioted in more than 30 countries.

There is a devastating economic as well as human cost to hunger. According to the Global Framework for Action the cost of child under-nutrition to national and economic development is estimated at $20-30 billion per year. When multiplied over the lifetime of today’s undernourished children, this amounts to $500 billion - $1 trillion in lost productivity and income. For some countries, the cost of child malnutrition is as much as 2-3 percent of their annual GDP.

Unplanned budget cuts leave beneficiaries weaker and therefore more vulnerable and more susceptible to disease. It also reinforces a negative downward cycle, making it harder for beneficiaries to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger.

The faster WFP can respond the sooner we can break the negative cycle of poverty and hunger at its root and prevent short-term food needs from turning into long-term malnutrition deficits.

Haddad: What is the main change you would like to see to WFP’s funding mechanisms? What is stopping this happening? How can supporters of WFP help change this dynamic?

Sheeran: Our immediate priority must be to raise sufficient funds to meet identified needs in the current year. Many donors have sustained their generous support despite a challenging economic environment. Others, such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Oman, contributed for the first time in 2009.
We are also reaching out to corporate partners and individual supporters. Everyone can play a crucial role in helping to raise awareness of worsening global hunger and our funding shortage. Moving forward, WFP is also working with donor countries to explore mechanisms that would improve the stability and predictability of its funding. More predictable and stable funding would allow us to plan farther ahead and respond to needs more effectively and efficiently. We already have in place a forward purchase mechanism that allows us to purchase food at low prices – when we’re not in a crisis situation – and preposition them. This has proven to cut 2 months off our normal procurement and delivery timeframe – thereby allowing us to not only save money, but life-saving time.

We are exploring with donors, the World Bank and other financial experts how to scale up this pilot concept and create an advance finance facility that will cut costs, improve effectiveness and efficiency, allow us to response more quickly in a crisis and institute a level of predictability that we have not had in the past.

Haddad: Did the G20 outcomes from London make a difference to WFP’s operations? What are you looking for from the upcoming G20 in Pittsburgh?

Sheeran: Restoring growth in the global economy is critical to continuing what had been a positive trend in cutting poverty and hunger. The global economic crisis has hit developing nations hard – reducing remittances, slowing exports, evaporating jobs and minimizing investment. By focusing on that goal and recognizing that the current crisis has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people in the world’s poorest countries, the G20 meetings were helpful.

Following an historic $20 billion commitment to food security by world leaders at the G8 Summit in Italy this summer, the Pittsburgh G20 will be a vital opportunity to set a bold vision for ending hunger vulnerability by directing substantial new resources toward the kinds of successful anti-hunger safety nets pioneered by Brazil, China, Sierra Leone and other countries. We need to remember that hunger is a solvable problem. A few generations ago Ireland, where my ancestors were from, was devastated by famine. Just 18 years ago WFP’s biggest program was in China. Today they help us feed other nations. Brazil has broken the hunger curve through innovative food safety nets and other programs. Ghana is making progress.

Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that these hard economic times do not reverse our progress on defeating hunger. Effective food security strategies must be comprehensive, including emergency food assistance, food safety net programs, such as school feeding and mother-child nutrition interventions, as well as increased agricultural production. They are proven strategies that need to be modelled as best practices.

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