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Sheila Sisulu, World Food Programme

Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director, World Food Programme. (WFP)
Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director, World Food Programme.
WFP

Innovative approaches to fighting hunger

Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director for hunger solutions at the World Food Programme discusses the implications of the food, fuel and finance crises on emergency food aid and the need for innovative approaches to tackling hunger.

The high cost of food and fuel is affecting everyone. We know of farmers in the Kenyan Rift Valley who are only planning to plant a third of what they did last year, because of high fuel costs. West African cities, which depend on imported food from Europe, have experienced a number of food price riots. At the World Food Programme (WFP), we are continually asked whether we have concerns about sustaining our food distribution, and of course we do. Our projected costs for this year have doubled from US$3 billion to US$6 billion, and while some countries have increased their donations there is still a long way to go to meet this target. In the meantime, our school feeding programmes have been forced to reduce the size of meals by 40 per cent.

Nothing focuses the minds of politicians more than the thought of losing elections or votes, or even the possibility of unrest. This crisis is a wake up call, globally, but in particular for Africa, to invest in agriculture; for governments to find long term solutions to hunger. It shows we must be innovative in getting to the root of food insecurity. At WFP, our emergency feeding programmes are vital in keeping people alive and buying time for longer term strategies, but we must also be working to break the cycle of hunger.

From food aid to food assistance

Local purchasing of food is one way forward. Half of our donations now come as cash rather than grain. Eighty per cent of this money is then spent in developing countries to buy food. This year, for example, we have spent US$3 million buying grain from Rwanda. Local purchasing has many advantages. It removes the need to ship food long distances, cutting transport costs. It supports developing country economies and means that we can buy locally-produced foods that are preferred by those who receive them.

In partnership with governments, donors and development agencies, we have recently launched our Purchase for Progress (P4P) initiative in 21 countries. Poor access to markets forces many smallholders to leave crops in the field or to sell them to passing traders for virtually nothing. Through the P4P initiative we are offering a guaranteed market to smallholders with as little as a hectare or less of land. They will also be supported in accessing seeds, fertiliser and appropriate tools. Innovations of this kind are transforming WFP from a food aid to a food assistance organisation. However, support for Africa's smallscale farmers, most of whom are women, should not just focus on cereal crops. Any African "green revolution" must be geared towards improving nutrition; this can only be achieved by empowering farmers with sustainable ways to produce a diverse, balanced diet for themselves and their families.

Free school meals - health, wealth and human rights

In raising smallholder income, the P4P initiative aims to improve school attendance, something that is critical to the future of food and nutrition security in Africa. Many governments have launched universal primary education, which we are supporting through our school feeding programme. The combination of free education and free meals has persuaded millions of parents to send their children to school. This has immediate benefits for the children in terms of their health and their learning, but the long-term benefits in tackling hunger are even more important. Research shows that well nourished children have an advantage, in terms of work and earnings for the rest of their lives.

The food crisis has made governments more aware than ever of the value of school feeding programmes. We have had countless requests to expand and deepen our support but we must be innovative to achieve this. In Liberia, for example, we now continue to feed children during the school holidays. Working with the World Health Organisation, we are combining school feeding with de-worming programmes in more than 30 countries. For the very poor and for children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, we have introduced take-home rations. This turns the child from a liability, an extra mouth to feed, into an asset, since the take-home rations are enough for the whole family. They are, however, conditional on the child attending school regularly.

Ensuring that girls, in particular, are allowed to go to school and are encouraged to stay there has multiple benefits, delaying marriage, reducing unwanted pregnancy and improving health among the girl's own family. In terms of human rights and gender equality, school feeding programmes are probably the most cost effective strategy available. These girls represent the future for Africa's food production. Empowering them, and the women they become, is the key to breaking the cycle of hunger.

Date published: November 2008

 

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