UN aid debate: Give cash, not food?
The United Nations World Food Program meets Tuesday in Rome to discuss the global food crisis.
Kerio Valley, Kenya
The hungry people of Kenya's Kerio Valley had waited since dawn to be fed. They were not waiting for the thunder of aid trucks or the distant rumble of a cargo plane signaling a food drop.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead, they were waiting for the beep of their mobile phones and a text message that they could use to collect cash to buy local food. It's part of a trial using the latest technology to streamline the aid process in a way that does not distort local markets.
"I have got it, I have got it," screamed one woman holding her cellphone aloft.
Tuesday, world leaders will begin talks in Rome on ending a global food crisis that has provoked riots and put 100 million people at risk of hunger. The Kenya program reflects a growing shift among aid groups.
In a major endorsement of the approach, the UN's World Food Program, the biggest non-governmental distributor of food, is expected to announce later this month that it will begin distributing cash and vouchers instead of food in some areas, according to WFP sources.
In a little noticed address recently to British members of Parliament, Josette Sheeran, the WFP's executive director, described the plan as a "revolution" in food aid.
"We think with this new face of hunger we are going to face situations where there is food on the shelves but people simply cannot afford it and they are thrown into the ranks of the desperately hungry because of that, and some of these protests that you are seeing around the world are really the urban poor who suddenly cannot afford the basic foodstuffs that they could a number of months ago," she said.
Cash aid is cheaper and faster
It will mark a historic shift for an agency that was set up to distribute American grain surpluses to the developing world.
Today, the WFP still receives half its aid as food, but there is a growing realization that cash is a cheaper, faster, and more efficient way to deliver help to the hungry, particularly in areas where food is available but unaffordable.
Peter Smerdon of the WFP in Nairobi, says the increasing amount of cash donated instead of food makes it possible for the first time to consider alternatives to simply shipping sacks of grain. He says the proposal has gone to the agency's board, which meets at the end of this week, for final approval.
"It's about adding cash and cash vouchers to our toolbox of responses alongside food," he said. "The surplus era is largely over now so that prompted us to look at other ways to help people, using cash or food vouchers alongside food."
Delivering sacks of corn and tins of oil may still be the most appropriate way to help people in a drought living a long way from markets, say aid workers.
On the other hand, people in cities or farming areas who are too poor to buy food may benefit more from cash.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in Kenya's Kerio Valley, where avocados blush red in the sun, bananas grow juicy, and plump goats play king of the castle on tree stumps.