The World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation addressing hunger and promoting food security. In 2019, the WFP provided assistance to close to 100 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger. In 2020, it won the Nobel Peace Prize, here its Executive Director David Beasley explains the challenges in the decades ahead.
Executive Director of the World Food Programme
The world’s population is growing at a staggering rate, with an estimated 2 billion more people expected to be sharing our planet by 2050.
This clearly has strong implications for sustainable development and, especially for us here at the UN World Food Programme (WFP), for achieving zero hunger. This is particularly the case since the 47 least-developed countries are among the world’s fastest growing.
These are countries where food insecurity and malnutrition are already likely to be deep-rooted, often the chronic symptoms of conflict and the destructive impact of climate extremes. They are also countries where WFP is heavily engaged in addressing the root causes of hunger and building the knowledge and expertise of governments to manage their own, sustainable development.
In describing efforts to feed this and future generations, we should constantly remind ourselves of one, shocking truth: while more than 800 million people go hungry every day, the world produces enough food to feed every one of us. This should cause outrage, yet it can also inform how we address chronic food insecurity both immediately and in terms of building a framework whereby we can eradicate hunger.
The issue is not one of scarcity but rather one of access – not solely to markets to buy food, but to the means of producing it and of generating incomes that give people spending power. The inability to develop sustainable livelihoods is often particularly acute in rural communities. There’s a striking irony here, as those very same communities are home to smallholder farmers who, if given the opportunity, can be at the heart of creating a hunger-free world. Around 500 million smallholder farms already produce more than 80 percent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world.
Imagine what could be achieved if we could enhance the ability of smallholders to grow more crops in a sustainable way, to store and to move their food, and to access profitable markets that can boost their incomes and livelihoods. In essence, if we created the dynamic food systems required to bring nutritious food from the farm right onto people’s plates, making markets more effective and ensuring that smallholders, traders and others along the supply chain each receive a fair share of the profit.
Here at WFP we are striving to do just that. As the largest humanitarian organization in the world, WFP’s experience in buying and distributing food in 80 countries means we are perfectly placed to identify where food systems are broken and what is needed to fix them. More than this, our demand for food and supporting services can be a driving force towards the achievement of zero hunger, contributing to community-based agricultural growth and sustainable social and economic transformation.
Every year we increase the amount of food we procure locally – in 2018 alone our purchases in 93 countries totalled US$1.6 billion. Among these countries is Rwanda. Here we work with the Africa Improved Foods consortium, who produce nutritious processed food for our programmes and the local and regional market. Raw products are sourced from smallholder farmers, while local businesses transport the food. It’s a win-win, supporting local traders while producing WFP products that improve nutrition in Rwanda as well as across Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. WFP’s new local and regional food procurement policy will further strengthen moves towards this more ‘integrated’ approach to food procurement. The benefits of local procurement can be social as much as economic. In Colombia we support efforts to build peace through buying food for our school meals from Multiactiva Paz para Colombia, a farmers’ cooperative which integrates former FARC members following the peace deal of 2016. Local procurement of non-food items, including vehicles, spare parts and fuel, ICT equipment and storage facilities, is also key to our approach in the countries where we work.
WFP’s support to sustainable food systems falls under the wider umbrella of food assistance – not the traditional, short-term aid distributed during emergencies, but rather the range of activities that empower vulnerable people and provide regular access to nutritious food. No doubt this assistance still sustains communities in times of crises – but the difference is how it can also provide a platform for them to recover from those crises and gradually emerge from poverty.
Our position as the largest provider of cash in the humanitarian system provides a prime example. When we distribute cash to refugees and other vulnerable groups in times of crises, we are providing the means for them to secure food, but also injecting cash into the local economy that can help keep markets functioning. In Bangladesh we boosted food security and local markets by providing 840,000 refugees with a card to buy produce in WFP-contracted shops, working also with retailers on food quality and pricing to ensure a fair and flowing marketplace. When we distribute cash or food during emergencies such as drought or floods, we deter smallholders from selling off livestock or other precious assets that can help them climb out of poverty in the long term.
In Ethiopia I have seen for myself the devastating impact of recurrent drought on rural farming communities in Somali Region and other areas. We partner with the government on the Productive Safety Net Programme, the biggest in Sub-Sahara Africa, where cash is distributed in exchange for work on projects including water and soil conservation. In the same country, farmers can access insurance to cover losses incurred during climate shocks, in exchange for working on projects such as land restoration, under WFP’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative. They can also access loans to buy seeds or livestock that can help boost their production. Just as importantly, farmers help to run the project, building skills that can make it sustainable. Farmers like Haftu Kidanu Hadgu, who collects insurance premiums in his village: “My crops have increased by 50 percent and I make 30 percent more money than before,” Haftu proudly told one of my WFP colleagues. “I am a role model for the project and the community trust me.”
Where crops are flourishing at smallholdings, we can move them along the supply chain by connecting farmers to commercial markets. One way is through the Farm to Market Alliance, a public-private sector consortium through which smallholders are trained in areas including post-harvest storage and access to markets, in partnership with local farmer organizations and under the guidance of lead farmers who are trusted within their communities. In the agricultural season of 2018 to 2019 alone, the alliance worked with almost 90,000 farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. On a visit to Tanzania I was invited into one family’s home as they explained how the initiative was helping them increase their incomes and expand their living space. As in many of our operations, fast-evolving technology also plays a central role. In Zambia we have piloted an app called Maano, a virtual farmers’ market that connects them with traders and other buyers, and provides real-time information on crop values.
I am tremendously proud to lead an organization that has done so much in supporting the sustainable food systems that can lift whole swathes of people out of poverty and drive long-term food security. But if we are to finally eradicate hunger, it is national governments who must take full ownership and determine their own countries’ futures.
That is why we have undergone an exhaustive government-led process in the countries where we work, identifying priorities and how we can best support transition to state ownership of anti-hunger programmes. A prime example is in Kenya, where rapid population growth combined with factors including recurrent drought contribute to one third of its people living below the poverty line.
Many parts of the country lack the capacity and resources to introduce real change, meaning food systems face persistent challenges and bottlenecks across production, transformation and consumption. WFP is working with the government on a sustainable food systems approach, with a package of activities supporting smallholder productivity, market access, retail and household consumption, introduced with partners across the supply chain.
As just one snapshot: in northern Kenya, host to 400,000 refugees from neighbouring countries, we are working with local traders to sell porridge to some of those from the camps, who pay using cash transfers from WFP. As one trader Lolem Boyo Emilat told us: “Even if customers do not buy there and then, they leave the shop knowing the stocks you have, and they might come back.”
By building opportunities for traders like Lolem, by boosting the production and trade of smallholders like Haftu in Ethiopia, and by working in partnership with governments like Kenya’s and partners including the private sector, NGOs and other UN agencies, we can together build the thriving, efficient food systems that underpin sustainable development. Nothing less will do if we are to secure a hunger-free world for the generations to come, towards 2050 and well beyond.