UN aid debate: Give cash, not food?

The United Nations World Food Program meets Tuesday in Rome to discuss the global food crisis.

Rob Crilly
SOS via SMS: In Kenya, Tarik Tealei Teresha picks up a mobile phone. Some aid groups now use cellphones to send cash transfers to buy food.

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.

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.

People here should not be hungry, but many lost everything in a wave of violence that swept the country after disputed elections at the end of last year.

There is food in the market but most lack the money to buy it. Dumping sacks of corn would fill bellies but put farmers out of business.

Instead the Irish aid agency Concern is piloting an alternative through a mobile phone operator, Safaricom, which runs a money transfer program that allows cash to be sent from one part of the country to another.

Concern donated more than $30,000 for distribution via cellphone to some of Kenya's poorest people so that they can buy local food.

It is the latest example of mobile phones helping people in remote areas of the developing world. Farmers receive market information sent directly to their phones and health workers use them to collect epidemiological data or to distribute advice.

"If we think of bringing in food items in an emergency then we want to respond as quickly as possible," says Anne Ejakait, who runs the cash program for Concern. This technology can get the money here in minutes compared with the very difficult logistics of bringing in food."

The technology has passed by Tarik Tealei Teresha until now. She does not know her own age – probably somewhere in her 60s – much less how to work the mobile phone she has been given to share with nine other families.

"This system is good," she says, "but that's as much as I know."

It is a month since she has eaten meat.

Like most people here, she is only able to afford one meal of thick maize porridge a day. Where once she would have cooked a chicken or beef stew to go with it, now she is surviving on the fleshy fruit of the Taralakwo tree.

"When I get the money I will buy maize, meat, and milk for the children," she says, waiting patiently for her phone to beep with 320 shillings ($5) per person in her family – enough for about a fortnight's food.

Food is too expensive to buy

Her story is typical in an area where the government-supporting Pokot tribe clashed with the Tugen, who backed Kenya's opposition party during December's election.

Wilson Lokopwa, the local chief, says: "After the election they started killing people, burning homes. Stores of maize were taken from homes and cattle and goats were stolen.

"Now there is maize in the market but it is more expensive and people are hungry."

As chief, he worked with other community leaders and Concern to draw up criteria on who would be eligible for cash and who would not be.

The result was about 550 households in need of urgent help.

They targeted women in order to make sure the cash would be spent on household goods.

Aid workers will now monitor their spending to see if it is worth extending the program.

Tricia O'Rourke, of the aid agency Oxfam, says it is high time the WFP caught up with that latest thinking in food aid policy.

"It's something that we have been calling for some time – that we should be moving towards this type of aid," she says. "It's just a shame that it had to come to a crisis like this for the WFP to catch up."

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