Helping to Get Food Relief Into Hungry Mouths

With the end of the cold war, more countries are requiring food aid. The past head of the World Food Programme reflects on aid priorities.

JAMES INGRAM, the executive director of the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP), left the post this month after 10 years. The WFP, with a staff of about 1,600, funds $3 billion of development projects in nearly 100 countries and handles more than a quarter of the world's food aid. He was interviewed at WFP headquarters here. Excerpts follow:

What are the most important lessons that you've learned as head of the WFP?

There has grown up a certain dependency on aid ... in both the donor community and the recipients. I think that too much of it is ill-directed.

I'm not talking now about the failure of policies and so on in developing countries. I'm talking about the misdirection on the part of the developed countries of so much of their aid.

I don't agree very much with the new conditionality which is being applied. That doesn't mean that I believe one should give aid when it's manifestly ill-used. But I think it's better not to give aid in bad situations than to be always trying to establish conditions.

Some of our development projects - our soil conservation, tree planting, and so on - [are] very much "in" at the present time; but we've been doing it for 20 years.

You've said that creative food aid can be used as a development tool rather than simply as a charitable act.

It works by paying people with food. If people are poor, they attach considerable value to using an additional dollar to purchase food. You could pay them in cash. And for every dollar they get, they'll spend 80 cents on food. You can therefore pay them in food, and if it's an appropriate food, you are serving the same interest ... you're generating employment.

I mentioned our soil conservation and tree planting, our flood-control projects, our land-development projects. You can create good assets with that labor. What is disappointing, though, is that in such projects we have found it difficult to get sufficient resources from other donors to pay for the complementary inputs, and they can of course be quite large.

You also feel it is important that third-world governments themselves see that they can use aid for development and not just as a handout.

That's not always easy to do. You can take an unnamed African country, where people did have quite enough to eat, say, 15 years ago. Now they don't. And of course the reasons why they don't are rather complex, but one reason will be that all sorts of policies have been followed that favored the creation of a modern urban sector. Agriculture has languished and people have fled to the towns.

Mr. Ingram, you've been critical of the current approach to determining needs in crises.

It's tied up too much with the requirement to produce a neat appeal package which is easy for donor bureaucracies to deal with.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding quite a lot of effort that has gone into improving the data collection from the rural areas on food production, it's very poor data half the time.

In my view, there needs to be much more "eyeballing," to use one of your American words: What is the real situation on the ground? Have they got any stocks left? Is the harvest overall as bad as it seems in terms of the gross data?

The trouble is if the data is very inadequate, you'll naturally be cautious and you'll tend to overestimate, because you don't want to be responsible for people dying. More often than not, if you overestimate, the donors become skeptical.

When you look at how humanity is solving the problem of feeding itself, are you encouraged or discouraged?

I wouldn't say I'm exactly discouraged. I think we're not doing too badly.... We're not having the great deaths from famine that you would have had 50 years ago....

With the end of the cold war, instead of peace and tranquillity, we seem to have turbulence.... The donor community, which is also active with its food aid in the former Soviet Union, has got more demands.... I think in fairness to donors so far, they haven't really cut back their support for emergencies in developing countries. But what I do find is that they respond too slowly. Because their budgets are tight and they're trying to keep their options open, they take too long to respond. The consequences

can be that the food comes too late, too much comes at the wrong time, the distribution logistical systems can't handle it, and in effect it costs a lot more to deal with it.

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