5 July 2008

The emergency service at the heart of the UN

By Marguerite Finn

Before shutting down my computer of an evening, I often take a quick look at the UN News Service to see what is happening in the rest of the world. It can be a shocking reminder of how unforgiving and complex a world we live in. It is not always the best news to go to bed on, yet at the heart of all this complexity there is a beacon of hope.

Here in Norwich, we may be enjoying some of the hottest days of the year, the strawberries may be cooling in the fridge and the Wimbledon season may be in full swing; meanwhile in Ethiopia, 4.6 million people are facing acute malnutrition as the drought in the southern and south-eastern parts of that country intensifies. Seasonal rains have failed, affecting crop production, the availability of pastures, the raising of livestock – in fact, just about everything required for survival.

Ethiopia is not alone. At the World Food Crisis Summit in Rome on 4th June, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced it was "scaling up its urgent food assistance in 62 countries".

I found myself wondering what organisation on earth could cope with the challenges of global disaster management? Even those who habitually groan at the mention of the 'United Nations' would have to agree that the World Food Programme does a pretty good job – although their successes rarely make media headlines.

This is their story.

A wave of food-price inflation is moving across the globe, leaving in its wake drastically increased levels of hunger and poverty. The phenomenon is affecting everyone but the poor and hungry are on the front line, as are the agencies working with them. We are facing a real war here: against malnutrition on the one hand, and dwindling resources, climate change and the protection of unsustainable lifestyles, on the other. As in all wars, the strategic planning and execution of the various 'battles' determines whether the war will be won or not. Imagine a scenario in which three different organisations are competing over the 'units' of starving people: one might be a multinational corporation with good ideas but governed by the profit motive; another might be a well-meaning NGO but with a necessary eye on good publicity; the third might be a religious charity with its own spiritual agenda.

Who pulls all these different strands together?

The World Food Programme was established in 1963 as a multilateral food-aid programme. Current high food prices represent the biggest challenge in its 45-year history. Everyday it tackles the daunting task of mobilising enough food and delivering it where – and when - it is most needed. Staff have been ambushed and killed in the process. WFP recently appealed to the world's naval powers to provide escorts to protect its food-aid ships from pirate attacks. The Royal Netherlands Navy is about to finish its tour of duty but so far there have been no offers to take over from them. Without escorts, the WFP maritime supply routes will be threatened.

Wearing my nuclear-disarmament hat, I am tempted to say that in a world where over 854 million people are hungry, escorting ships of essential food supplies might be a more useful and honourable job than permanently patrolling the bottom of the seas with unusable nuclear weapons.

WFP has drawn up a strategic plan which is quite a revolution in food-aid: 80 percent of its cash for food is spent in the developing world, 80 percent of ground transport is similarly procured and 80 percent of staff is hired locally.

I asked Greg Barrow, current head of WFP-UK, how did the various aid agencies manage not to fall over each other and duplicate their efforts. He agreed that in any particular humanitarian crisis a combination of agencies usually did respond, including UN agencies, NGOs, governments and even private individuals. He said much has been done to co-ordinate the activities of these different agencies, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) playing an important role and WFP taking the lead on providing logistical support and food assistance. UN agencies work hand-in-hand with NGOs. WFP works with more than 3000 NGOs around the world, using its heavy-lifting support to get the food to where the NGOs on the ground say it is needed.

The people of Norwich will have a unique opportunity to put their questions directly to the head of WFP-UK on Saturday 25 October, at a Public Meeting in Blackfriar's Hall (7.30pm) hosted by the local branch of the United Nations Association, who are celebrating their 60th anniversary.