Why are the world's food aid programs running short of money?

On Monday, the World Food Program announced that, due to a funding shortage, it was suspending food aid to more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The setback, which comes as winter approaches, is emblematic of a global crisis.

Hussein Malla/AP/File
The UN World Food Program says it has suspended a food voucher program serving more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees because of a funding crisis. Displaced Syrian boys and girls, shown in September during a visit by UN officials to their refugee camp in Deir al-Ahmar village in east Lebanon.

Monday’s announcement from the United Nations’ main emergency food assistance agency was alarming enough: A shortage of funding has forced the World Food Program to suspend its food aid to more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees.

But behind the dire news for displaced Syrians already facing the challenge of a harsh winter is an equally worrisome global picture for food aid programs as a whole, as crises across the Middle East and Africa overwhelm international capacity and donor largesse.

Syria’s nearly four-year-old civil war is the cause of what international experts say is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster. But long-running conflicts in Africa, and some new ones, are adding to a scenario that aid groups say could turn grim for millions over the coming months if donations don’t pour in quickly.

Already last month, the World Food Program (WFP) said that low supplies were forcing it to cut food rations for the half-million refugees from South Sudan and Somalia it feeds in camps in Kenya. Conflict in the Central African Republic and recent devastating floods in Somalia – which is barely recovering from decades of war – have left millions more with precarious food sources.

In West Africa, the Ebola crisis is discouraging farmers in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone from tending fields and getting produce to markets. More than a million West Africans could soon face food shortages, humanitarian groups working there say.

The prospect of burgeoning food assistance needs is leading international governmental organizations like WFP to issue urgent calls for emergency funding, while non-governmental organizations are revising upward their prognostications for emergency assistance needs next year.

As one example, the International Red Cross announced last week that in order to meet “vastly expanding needs” that in some cases are due to “new kinds of crises,” it has set a goal of raising nearly $1.7 billion for emergency assistance in 2015 – a full quarter more than what it sought to raise from donors for 2014.

Within this global picture of expanding food assistance needs, the size and complexity of Syria’s crisis keep it at the forefront of international concerns. The UN helps to feed some 4 million internally displaced Syrians, in addition to the 1.7 million Syrian refugees.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is accused by many world powers including the United States of using starvation to defeat pockets of opposition within the territory it still holds, while the Islamic State (IS) controlling a swath of the northeast of the country also provides or withholds food and other provisions based on community support, according to reports.    

The Syrian refugees who will be affected by the WFP suspension are spread across the region in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and even Iraq, which is facing some food crises of its own among refugees in areas under threat from IS forces.

For hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the suspended food rations will only augment the hardships of winter, some experts say.

The WFP suspension of food aid “couldn’t come at a worse time,” the United Nations’ top official for refugee issues, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement Monday. The aid cut will affect tens of thousands of families “who are almost entirely dependent on international aid,” he said.

The challenge of keeping up with Syria’s expanding humanitarian needs is not new. Already in September, the WFP cut by as much as 50 percent the food vouchers that refugee families received to spend in local markets.

The WFP, which operates mostly on country donations, is often in a position of scraping by from month to month as it awaits pledged funding.  The US has given almost $1 billion to the UN agency for its operations with Syrians since the conflict started, including a donation last week of $125 million.

But that money covered food vouchers issued in November and assistance for internally displaced Syrians. It was not enough to stave off today’s suspension of food vouchers for Syrian refugees – or WFP’s warning that it will also be forced to end food aid to Syrians inside the war-ravaged country in February unless donations pick up.

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