Challenges to humanitarian food aid

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I am in a workshop in Nairobi with people from the Horn and East of Africa and also from the Sahel. Naturally, no programme discussion could be complete without time being spent on droughts and famines. With this came up the challenges with food aid, a most common intervention.

Logistics

  1. Identification of the food basket: Quite often the basket contains cereal, pulse, oil and salt. Deciding what will be in the pack, is relatively easy in a mono-culture context where everyone has more or less consumes similar type of food. In multicultural contexts, it gets difficult. This is best managed by discussing with the local community who are going to be the beneficiaries of the distribution.
  2. Procurement: It is often not easy to procure what is needed even if the identification is done well.  In the 2008 food crisis in Afghanistan wheat had to be procured from Kazhakstan simply because there was no wheat available locally.  That added to the costs enormously since the grain had to be trucked over difficult terrain.
  3. Distribution: getting the food from the point of supply to point of demand can be an enormously expensive (as I mentioned above) and fraught with danger. In Afghanistan for instance during the crisis, food trucks sent out by the World Food Organisation were routinely hijacked and / or burnt by the Taliban.   One solution is to replace food with cash. This is often easier to transfer but increases security risk enormously. Here mobile money transfers, when possible, become enormously useful.
  4. Beneficiary Selection: Ensuring that the most deserving beneficiaries (women headed households, child headed households, aged, disabled etc) indeed get the food is not always as straight forward. These people are often voiceless and it takes a lot of effort to identify and reach them. I remember running into a situation where a large number of women headed households were not able to take the grain from the distribution centre to their homes because they did not have means of transport (donkeys) nor were they able to hire them. We then had to build systems of transport specifically in the mountainous terrain of Central Afghanistan. Then there is the question of ensuring that in extremely patriarchal societies women and the girl children got access to the food.

Macroeconomics

  1. Distortion of local markets:  Injecting large amounts of food in a particular area, here I refer to a permanent settlement and not a refugee camp, always distorts the local economy. Local traders get driven out of business which, was a complaint we often heard in Northern Kenya. The trick then is to engage local traders to ensure that they become the conduits of the food transfer and yet take care that they do not end up withholding aid food to sell later in the black market. Using cash instead of food often leads to localised inflation where everything else becomes expensive.
  2. Donor fatigue: Recurrent crises often result in donor fatigue. This means less funds are available and that also means that fewer people can be supported. Food aid is a life saving intervention and if not done to the extent required, people die.  This is one of the issues that affects the Horn of Africa and Sahel in Western Africa.

Politics

  • Donors often insist that the food that is being distributed is procured in their home country! This could mean that something that was locally available was shipped form half way across the world.  This increases costs and causes delays.
  • Northern Kenya faces periodic drought and even famines on a regular basis. The Kenyan civil society and government is against genetically modified corn. In the 2011 food crisis, GMO maize was refused entry which meant that while people were starving, maize was rotting in the shipyards. See discussion at Does Kenya need GM crops as it battles famine in the Horn of Africa?

There may be other challenges that I have overlooked. If so, please do leave a comment.

Makarand