On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

Getting it wrong

A recurrent theme in international development is the issue of measuring and reporting aid effectiveness – this topic gets a lot of buzz, and rightly so. Especially in an age of fiscal constraints, it is ever more important to deploy funding to projects that work. There’s a lot of debate about whether official development aid is more effective than chanelling funding through small local NGOs, big international ones, or something in between. What I find baffling is that a lot of people are willing to say that one is the better alternative – personally, I think that there are some government agencies, some NGOs (large/small) that are good at handling aid money, and others that aren’t. Dismissing one model for the other doesn’t make any sense, given how heterogenous the group is. 

As the excellent blog Good Intentions are Not Enough points out, one of the main problems with aid agency/NGO reporting is the fact that negative findings are often swept under the rug, or spun into a positive narrative because these agencies are afraid of jeopardizing their sources of fuding. The problem is that funders often don’t have the capacity to closely monitor/evaluate the impact of their donation, and rely on reporting from their grantee… Which is obviously problematic, for a number of reasons. Even if the grantee outsources evaluation to a third party, the results that filter back to the donor aren’t always guaranteed to accurately reflect reality. There’s also the issue of overstating a crisis or situation to attract funding, another dangerous and unsustainable practice. Organizations and agencies that receive aid are all actually competing for resources – they are, after all, entities that employ staff etc. and whose own existence depends on the existence of a need, a crisis, a situation that has to be addressed. It’s no wonder that they tend to overstate, spin, or misreport the facts to their donors – for some, it is a matter of organizational survival. 

It makes it complicated to evaluate the effectiveness of aid in this context: not only do you generally have to contend with insufficient monitoring mechanisms at the project level, which make it difficult to know whether any quantifiable objectives are met, but there are also all these qualitative dimensions that come into play. The straightforward elements of evaluating aid effectiveness can sometimes be overshadowed by subjectivity – the reputation of an organization, who’s on the board,  its ability to serve beneficiaries at scale…etc. And let’s not forget the highly political nature of official development aid – the fact that Israel, Egypt, Colombia and Pakistan are the countries which receive the most American official development aid (ODA) is a telling fact (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan.) To genuinely evaluate the effectiveness of aid, we shouldn’t just be looking at the glossy quarterly and year end reports. For some well-entrenched organizations and agencies, the validity of their model, of their projects is barely questioned.

Interestingly, when it comes to ODA, there seems to be a correlation between the degree of aid dependency and lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the recipient government. (“The Open Budget Survey reveals that those countries performing least well in terms of budget transparency practices share certain characteristics, including lower income levels, dependence on foreign aid, reliance on revenues from hydrocarbon extraction, and weak democratic institutions.”) For a lot of these countries, ODA is their principal lifeline, and to stop the flow of funds would probably have catastrophic consequences for the population (actually, that is an assumption – would be interesting to find out what impact lower levels of ODA would have on a country like Liberia)

The whole “aid effectiveness” debate is rather obscured, in my opinion, by political and subjective factors – how can we effectively evaluate the impact of aid when aid disbursements themselves aren’t based on genuine levels of need, but rather on how well the agency, organization or government is able to convince donors of that need. Whether one looks at ODA, or funding for agencies/NGOs carrying out development activities in low income countries, we’re never going to be serious about “aid effectiveness” until we look at the full process, from needs assessment to expost evaluation.

Until we are able (willing?) to do so, we’ll have to accept a certain degree of inefficiency when it comes to aid. It’s not a perfect system, far from it, but the fact that such vigorous debate exists around development aid – in all of its forms – is a hopefully a sign that, as time goes by, we’ll be much more sophisticated when it comes to efficient aid allocation, monitoring and evaluation.

Apparently, World Vision in Liberia didn’t get that memo.

A disturbing example of large scale corruption within NGOs just emerged in Liberia. Astonishingly, 90% of World Vision’s aid to Liberia went missing – they lost $1mm as their project managers were selling food and using construction materials that were supposed to benefit Liberians (World Vision was a sub-grantee for food distribution and food-for-work projects.)

World Vision calculated that $884,681 worth of food was missing, with a total loss, including ocean freight expenses to ship the food to Liberia, of $1.45 million. 

The United States spent an additional $300,000 for construction materials, most of which were never used on the intended projects.

Unfortunately for World Vision, it means that their fundraising will suffer as a result – while this is obviously too bad for them and the beneficiaries of their other, functional projects, there is no reason why donors should not sanction World Vision for its lack of oversight. World Vision apparently employs 250 people in Liberia, which is quite significant – besides other international organizations or the government, there are few employers of this size in Liberia (hence the 85% unemployment rate…) and they’ve been operating there since the early 80s – it’s quite unbelievable and unacceptable that it took them 2 years  to uncover this massive fraud. 

I honestly have no idea how something of this scale could have occured – how is it possible that no one realized that 34 of the towns intended to benefit from this project didn’t exist? It really says a lot about WV’s management capacity and how (un)rigorous their internal monitoring mechanisms are. In addition, in a context of poverty, how could over a million dollars disappear discreetly? 

Quite apart from the fact that their Community Resettlement and Rehabilitation Project ended up being a massive failure because of this fraud, it’s also worth noting that their model of importing food from the United States for aid is a flawed approach – why not purchase locally and support the Liberian agricultural sector and its small-holder farmers? Owen Barder recently wrote  that instead of importing food aid to Ethiopia, cash transfers would be more effective in combating hunger (which makes a lot of sense, by the way: in doing so, you would reduce the cost of providing food aid). I suppose the risk here is that people may not use the cash for its intended purpose – but the counter-argument is that if the person would naturally use the cash for whatever is their greatest need, which hopefully doesn’t involve getting drunk at the local bar…(more about purchasing food aid locally here, and more about untying food aid here)

I have serious beef with this World Vision drama: not only did they fail the people of Liberia by botching the design and execution of its CRRP, but this is also going to contribute to increasing the distrust for organizations doing similar work. The “public relations disaster” mentioned by Kleinman is not limited to WV, but will have repercussions for other NGOs. Shame. 

Warning: shameless plug

As for The Niapele Project’s School Nutrition Initiative in Liberia, we just received a small grant from the GO Campaign to cover the start-up costs of the project. While we certainly don’t have the ability to operate at a scale quite like a large INGO, we’re still planning on feeding 600 kids/day during the upcoming school year. And we take monitoring seriously – in addition to having trustworthy program coordinators, we track the impact of the program through regular medical assessments. We’ll also be sourcing food items for the project from an agricultural co-op in Central Liberia which is run by a local grassroots organization, Malaya. While we don’t have the enormous budget, staff and long standing experience of World Vision in Liberia, Niapele’s work in Liberia is guided by an honest assessment of needs at the community level, and we believe that our small-scale impact will be long lasting. 

Good Reads

– A call for true coordination on African policy in the West

This woman is amazing – her honest, intelligent take on life in Liberia and her broader observations are always thought-provoking. Check out her professional site too – I’m a fan.

Easterly on untying official development assistance. Fave quote:


As recently as 2003 a document on the USAID website shamelessly stated: “The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of USAID’s contracts and grants go directly to American firms” (source).

– A great article from the Growth Commission regarding the impact of the financial crisis on the developing world. Excerpt:

One of the major threats to the international system which must be carefully managed would be the increased competition for scarce resources at both the international and national levels. This has already manifested itself in the case of oil and food and is becoming increasingly evident in the competition for water resources. There is also a clash of objectives with respect to environmental issues. The traditional polluters having achieved developed status, are locked in a major controversy with newly emerging countries with respect to the ravages to the environment given their mode of development.

The trade-offs here are very difficult in terms of meaningful compromise as countries like India and China, with huge populations and millions of poor people who are migrating into the cities with prospects of moving into the middle class, will not be denied the trappings of that class such as the ubiquitous motor car. The solution may lie not only in efforts of moral suasion to change consumption patterns in all countries, but also massive efforts in science and technology which are international in scope and based on the open system principle. In short, some of the same principles which fanned the revolution in information technology must be applied to the revolution in environmental science […]

The basis for sustained economic growth and development lies not only in investment, but in the political, administrative and technical capabilities of the nation state and it is leaders in the public and private sectors. The creation and support of institutions and organisations which not only set the framework and agenda for political, social and economic intercourse, but also access, sift and distribute information and knowledge, are essential


– And, to finish off, a couple of links on population movement:

  • The financial crisis’ impact on economic migrants
  • Interesting, timely take on Mexico-US immigration: “The number of people caught trying to sneak into the U.S. along the border with Mexico is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s. While some of the drop-off is the result of stricter border enforcement, the weaker U.S. economy is likely the main deterrent.”
  • Smugglers throw migrants over board in the Gulf of Aden.

Untying Food Aid

Canada just announced that it would move to “untie” its food aid – which means that it is removing restrictions on the origin of the food that is provided as aid. Previously, Canada’s food aid was linked to the provision that domestically grown food was to be used for international aid – which is recognized as detrimental to aid effectiveness:

It is widely acknowledged that tied aid—that is, aid that must be used to purchase goods or services from a particular donor country—undermines aid effectiveness. It has been clearly documented that tying aid raises the cost of many goods, services, and works by 15-30 percent40, and the cost of food by 40 percent […] But beyond these financial aspects, tied aid hinders developing country ownership of programmes and requires procurement procedures that often circumvent local procurement systems. This not only results in higher transaction costs, but also limits incentives and efforts to harmonise donor procedures and co-ordinate their activities.(p.41 of the report)

That leaves only the United States as a major donor country that still ties its food aid. The IRIN report notes that

Almost all food aid donated by the USA is tied to domestic requirements for procurement, processing and shipping. According to Barrett [Development Economics professor at Cornell University], it costs more than two dollars of US taxpayers’ money to deliver one dollar’s worth of food procured as in-kind food aid.

More here.

There has been a lot of media trumpetting over the $770 million food aid package that President Bush recently announced – which Bush coupled with a call to spend 25% of those funds on purchasing food locally. The Washington Post reminds us that historically, the United States has provided about half of all global food assistance and that the United States is the world’s largest provider of food aid, delivering more than $2.1 billion to 78 developing countries last year.

The US move to increase its food aid budget is laudable, and does indeed demonstrate leadership. There are caveats though – the funds requested will only be made available after October 1, when the federal fiscal year begins, which means, as Democratic congress men pointed out, “that [it] is far too late for the urgency of this problem. If you’re hungry and your government is collapsing, waiting until December 2008 or January 2009 for food to hit the ground is just too late”. Coupled with the fact that tied food aid is inefficient, and that other policy options are available that would have a more immediate impact, it seems that American food aid will fall short of helping resolve the global food crisis.

Perhaps this new series of Congress hearings on foreign assistance reform should give us hope.

Meanwhile, in somewhat related news, in Somalia, food riots kill 2 – and food aid to Palestinians in Gaza is threatened by fuel restrictions.

Random Thoughts

Riots in Senegal over food prices turn ugly – and in Cote d’Ivoire as well.

I just wrote about the potential unrest soaring food prices could cause… Funny how it works. I have to say, I think IRIN is particularly fond of this particular topic, and reports on it quite often. Nonetheless, I really do believe that food insecurity can cause tremendous damage – not just because of its obvious consequence (food is less affordable, particularly for the poorest), but also because, as we see in above examples, the tensions it can create between the authorities and civil society can be damaging. I’m curious to see how this issue will be addressed in months and years to come…. Anyway….

I’m leaving for Ghana tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to being there. With all that’s being going on, I’m eager to see our friends and the people we work with, and get a better sense of the reality of the situation. I’m also looking forward to meeting all the new people I have been corresponding/working with over the past few weeks, and seeing what kind of long term strategy for engagement with the refugee community we can come up with.


I’ll write some posts from Buduburam – hopefully I will have not just bad or sad news to report. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments or write me an email with comments, feedback, ideas…. We’re going to be shooting a promo video for Niapele with my friend Val, who has just started her own organization, Ayoka Productions. We’ll try and get some footage that we can use for advocacy purposes as well – in light of recent events, it seems clear that we have a role to play in offering this community a voice, a channel to express themselves.


On this note, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the latest Secretary General’s Report on the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), which was made public on March 19th:


54. Although the humanitarian situation in Liberia has continued to improve, the
country still faces serious challenges, particularly in the health, education, food, and
water and sanitation sectors. So far only 62 per cent of the $110 million needed to address the high priority humanitarian needs outlined in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, including the delivery of basic social services, the provision of productive livelihoods for returnee communities and the strengthening of civil society and local authorities, has been received. During the reporting period, UNMIL organized a number of medical outreach activities, which provided medical treatment for some 24,000 patients.
55. During the period under review, UNHCR conducted a post-voluntary repatriation verification exercise, which revealed that 75,509 registered Liberian refugees are still residing in various countries in the subregion. There are also 10,327 refugees from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries residing in Liberia. The United Nations, in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States and the Government of Liberia, is trying to find durable solutions for the integration of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The successful reintegration of returnees into communities continues to be a major challenge.

Sunset near the ARCH house, at the edge of Buduburam – August 2007

A Worrying Trend

World food prices are soaring, and this is having serious consequences on people’s livelihoods in the developing world. In addition, for organizations and agencies involved in food distribution or aid, the spike in food prices is also having an adverse effect on their ability to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. In recent news:


USAID announced that the cost of wheat and other food had gone up by 41 percent setting its budget back by US$121 million, which meant it would have to reduce the amount of food aid sent overseas (more here)

With local and international food shortages, merchants in Kano’s Dawanau grain market, the largest in West Africa [Nigeria], have hiked their prices. The price of a 50kg bag of maize has doubled since September from US$21 to US$42 and a bag of millet rose from US$29 to US$42, according to Magaji Ahmad, one of the merchants. Cowpeas, which sold at US$58 are now US$100, he added (more here)

In Burkina Faso, which was badly affected by floods in 2007 and has this year been roiled by violent protests over high food prices, sacks of corn are selling for double the price they were a year earlier, setting back impoverished Burkinabe 15,000 CFA francs (US$30) a sack compared to 7,500 CFA francs (US$15), according to FCPN.

“Recent assessments indicate that that food and nutritional situation could deteriorate due to a continued rise in food product prices,” FEWSNET warned.

Food riots have also recently taken place in Guinea Conakry, Mauritania and Senegal. Those countries depend heavily on imported wheat and rice which are more affected by high global commodity prices than upheavals in the regional markets […] Stephanie Savaraud, West Africa spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that school feeding and supplementary feeding would be appropriate responses to help support Burkina Faso, but warned that WFP faces its own funding crunch. “Rising prices for basic commodities mean WFP needs 30 percent more money this year to feed the same number of beneficiaries,” she said. “If we don’t get that then we will need to give less food to people.”(more here)

Food Market in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso – August 07


These problems in West Africa are obviously not happening in a vacuum – this in the context of rising food prices worldwide , due to a combination of interrelated factors, like increasing transportation costs due to the spike in oil prices, or poor crop yields in some regions because of droughts or floods. However, as usual, the poorest will bear the brunt of the current crisis – the excerpts above reveal two major consequences: one, that people are finding it increasingly harder to provide for themselves; two, that international agencies and NGOs are going to face difficulties trying to fulfill their mission – their budgets are not increasing, while their expenses are. While finding a solution to the former is a global challenge – governments all over the world are trying to address this issue – the latter problem highlights a structural problem in food aid – the fact that most food aid programs do not use local agricultural products. USAID only sends US agricultural products overseas, tapping into the giant production surplus its industry has generated

(on that topic, I highly recommend a documentary called “Famine Business” – I saw this at a film festival in Cape Town in 2003, and since then, it has mysteriously disappeared…. The only quote available on Google: “Film-maker Jihan El Tahri travels to Zambia to investigate claims that food aid is not necessarily the altruistic way of helping the poor that it seems. With the current Agriculture Minister for Zambia describing food-aid as ‘the use of food as a weapon of mass destruction’, El Tahri asks just who benefits from the famine business in an era of genetically modified food.”)

In any case, it seems that international agencies and organizations involved in providing food aid should place the utmost importance on supporting local agricultural production by purchasing food from local farmers. The WFP has a yearly budget which reaches nearly $3 billion – and they also have some of the lowest overhead cost of any large international agency. If these funds could be used productively, by investing in local production, this could yield some large scale benefits for producers in developing nations.

Food aid could help feed people not simply through charity – giving food to the hungry. It could also be construed as a means to boost local food producers, who find it terribly hard to export on the world market. Not only would this galvanize local economies, but it would also cut down on transportation costs. As everyone not living in a cave knows, transportation costs are soaring. Not only that, but in a world where concerns surrounding climate change and pollution are becoming increasingly important, buying locally also provides food aid agencies the opportunity to do their part in protecting the environment….

I don’t have all the answers to this incredibly worrying issue of soaring world food prices – in the short run, this could fuel instability in the poorest parts of the world (it already has in Burkina Faso and Egypt, for example.) In places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where poverty prevails and where the threat of political instability is all too real, this becomes a serious issue. The Food Crisis Prevention Network recommends building stocks in high risk zones, and commended Burkina for subsidizing certain food products. But in countries where warehousing and stocking is dependent on fragile infrastructure, and subsidies strain already exiguous budgets, these are only band-aid solutions and do not address the root causes of the problem – at all.

Meanwhile, Haitians are eating mud cakes.

Fasten your seat belt, we will be experiencing turbulence.