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'Food Security at the Tipping Point,' a lecture by the Executive Director of the UN World Food Program

Yasmine Cathell's picture

I attended a very timely talk about the current global food crisis by Josette Sheeran from the UN World Food Program (WFP) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on April 23, 2010. Sheeran explained how the global food crisis of 2008 pushed another 200 million people into hunger and thereby created a tipping point. Never before had the world faced a humanitarian crisis of such magnitude that crossed all borders simultaneously affecting the entire globe. Food security today is more than just a humanitarian issue; it is “a wise investment in a stable world” and affects foreign policy and global markets.

Sheeran used a red plastic cup she had acquired from a boy named Fabian in Rwanda to illustrate how simple it can be to address the often overwhelming issue of hunger. She went on to pose and answer five questions about the cup.  I want to share the question I found to be most interesting...

How do you fill this cup?

The issue of logistics is forefront in distributing food aid. Frequently those most in need are people in difficult and dangerous places with difficult governance. The logistics of getting aid to those people can be both complicated and dangerous. Sheeran described the use of “beasts of burden” to access areas trucks could not and told of the dangers of going into conflict zones such as Darfur where 36 WFP truck drivers had been kidnapped or gone missing. (Despite which other staff still volunteered to continue delivering aid to Darfur.)

I agree that logistics are necessary to aid distribution, but aid is only a temporary solution to often long lasting food security problems. So I was more than happy to hear about the WFP’s use of vouchers to fill Fabian’s cup. Sheeran gave the example of Burkina Faso, where people were given food vouchers to buy food from local farmers. The use of vouchers is so important for farmers because the introduction of free food (via aid) can often have a devastating impact on local markets, local farmers and ultimately the source of local food.  What’s interesting here is that “It’s not usually an absolute lack of food but a lack of access to food” that is responsible for hunger.  Particularly in times like today where food prices remain high but weak economies mean low or insecure wages, many cannot afford the price of food. 

The last way to fill Fabian’s cup was to grow it (food that is). Sheeran was particularly proud of a project in Ethiopia called MERET (Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to More Sustainable Livelihoods).  It is a joint effort between the Ethiopian government and the WFP aimed at teaching local communities and providing them with the tools and expertise necessary to minimize food insecurities in the future.  This is accomplished by rehabilitating terraces for agriculture, building rain collection ponds and creating efficient irrigation systems.  As a result of this project 2 million people now have access to food permanently.  I can see why she was so proud of this project. It provides a long lasting solution for food security and the local environment while empowering local communities to be self-sufficient.