By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on October 22, 2020.
On Oct. 9, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the UN’s World Food Programme. In announcing its decision, its chairperson said it was because of WFP’s efforts in combatting hunger, for its contribution for bettering conditions for peace in conflict areas and for acting as the driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war in conflict.
Although WFP has been with us for 55 years, it was not widely known to the public until about 30 years ago. But it was well known to governments, both donor and recipient. Right from its inception in the early ’60s, and with a progressively increasing budget, WFP has generally been well funded by donors, including Canada. It was always popular with recipient governments, too. It quickly built up a reputation that it always delivered the goods, and promptly, too. With WFP, the goods are what many people around the world today are still desperately short of: food.
Proposed by the United States, WFP was set up as a multilateral food aid program under the joint management of the UN and FAO, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization. Initially, one of its main tasks was to ship surplus U.S. grain to developing countries to alleviate hunger. That was followed by Europe’s surplus “butter mountain” – vast stockpiles of dried skim milk powder and butter oil that had accumulated as a result of European farm subsidies. Many of the WFP projects implemented with these surpluses are still flourishing today: India’s Indira Gandhi Canal network in the Thar desert and a national dairy industry in both China and India, just to name a few.
The days of massive food surpluses have long since passed. Nowadays, WFP largely uses cash contributed by donor governments to purchase food in developing countries, often from small farmers. That’s how much of the food WFP uses for its development projects and emergency operations is sourced.
Cost-effectiveness has always been a hallmark of WFP operations. In fact, for its first 30 years, WFP’s administrative overheads were the lowest in the UN system.
Until the early ’90s, roughly 70 per cent of WFP’s funding went to development projects aimed mainly at producing more food in developing countries. It also invested heavily in future generations by feeding children, both pre-school and at breakfast or lunch at school. The remaining 30 per cent went to the victims of emergencies: drought, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis – the so-called natural disasters. But increasingly, the share of WFP’s emergency assistance has gone to man-made disasters: war and civil war and the inevitable fallout: refugees.
But over the last 30 years, that ratio has reversed. The bulk of WFP food aid – as much as 80 per cent – now goes to emergencies, mostly to those caught in the crossfire of war.
WFP has certainly contributed to bettering conditions for peace in conflict areas. Conflict rages in many of the 88 countries where WFP operates. But laying siege to towns and even countries has been a tactic that armies and rebel groups have used from time immemorial. Very often, those in control don’t care if the opposing side starves to death. But they certainly don’t want that to happen to their supporters. So, in essence, both sides want the same thing for the people living in the territory they control: food.
WFP has long been involved in brokering deals, often at the local level, between government and rebel forces and then delivering food for distribution to civilians in the areas they control. Examples are: Biafra in the 1960s, Kampuchea in the 1970s, Sudan in the 1990s and now Yemen. I was responsible for Operation Lifeline Sudan in 1990-91. With government and separately with rebel leaders we negotiated, even-handedly: the quantities of food to be delivered to specific areas by truck, train, plane and river barge. Specific routes and delivery schedules had to be agreed to. Both sides had to agree not to bomb or attack our convoys along those routes on those days. Monitoring that the food was distributed to civilians was an essential element of the plan, as was the suspension of delivery in the event of non-compliance. Implementation was by no means smooth; it often ran in fits and starts. But it did mean that ordinary people on both sides of the civil war got fed and the use of hunger as a weapon of war was put on hold, at least, temporarily.
Because of the confidence and extra support that comes with the Nobel Peace Prize, we can expect even greater efforts by WFP to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war. But don’t expect widespread results soon. The dynamics of each conflict are different and so are the actors involved. Progress will be slow and irregular.
The bigger battle, of course, is inequality. Progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or Agenda 2030 is not encouraging. Goal #2: Zero Hunger, the goal that WFP is especially focused on will not be attained by 2030. But it is significant progress towards the attainment of these 17 goals that will lay the groundwork for a more sustainable and peaceful world. All member states of the UN, including Canada, adopted these goals in 2015. Yes, COVID-19 has set everything back a lot. But we must not lose sight of them.
Trevor Page worked for the World Food Programme for 31 years in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and at its headquarters in Rome, Italy. He was WFP’s first director of emergency humanitarian relief worldwide and has served as country director in many countries, including India, China and North Korea, and in the Sudan at the height of its civil war in the south. He was also seconded to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, and to what is now the UN Department of Political Affairs. Since retiring in Lethbridge, he does occasional consultancies for UN agencies including WFP. He is an active member of the WFP Alumni Network and runs a website for 3,800 retired and serving WFP staff.