The World Food Programme (WFP), a specialised agency of the United Nations, has been awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. Berit Reiss-Anderson, President of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announced it in Oslo on Friday, October 9. She claimed that the need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever. This is the recognition of WFP's long standing role in addressing the food security crises in countries suffering from severe shortage of essential food items and people living in the conflict zones and displaced population. When WFP has been in the front lines in trying to alleviate the sufferings of the millions of coronaviruses affected population in 83 countries this international recognition could not have been more appropriate and timely. David Beasley, WFP's Executive Director characterized situation in his words "Humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes."
WFP was created in 1962, on an experimental basis, to make use of the surplus food commodities that the largest producers including the United States, Canada and Australia had. The governments of these countries would purchase the agricultural products mainly cereals from the farmers and would make these available to WFP to utilise in the countries suffering from crop failures due to natural calamities or inadequate productions. The trial went well and other countries having good harvests and willing to donate resources to address hunger and poverty became donors of WFP. The United Nations Secretary General's office in New York and Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome became the custodian of WFP. Since WFP didn't have a robust bureaucracy, the United Nations Development Programme was called upon to provide administrative support to WFP country offices.
In 1970s, the armed conflicts in Asia and Africa added a new dimension in the arena of hunger and food insecurity. The military assault on the unarmed population in the eastern wing of Pakistan, now Bangladesh, unleashed largest humanitarian crisis in the region. About 10 million people took refuge in India and million more became internally displaced. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees built temporary shelters for refugees. WFP stepped in and serving food rations to the people living in the camps and outside became its fundamental responsibility. This was a mammoth humanitarian operation that lasted more than eleven months.
Following the 1974 famine, at the request of the United Nations Secretary General, WFP began its activities in Bangladesh. Large number of vulnerable families in the districts of Kurigram, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Sirajganj, Natore, Goplaganj and Madaripur were provided basic food rations. This programme was expanded in 1979 to combat another threat of famine. Simultaneously, WFP supported reconstruction of irrigation canals and repair of flood control embankments through Food for Work to protect the rice fields from being inundated before the harvests. Thousands of farmers in the districts of Sunamganj, Habiganj, Netrokuna, Keshoreganj and Sirajgonj would risk losing their crops from the rush of flood water flowing from across the border. The embankments guaranteed their crops from early flooding and enhanced food security in the region. WFP assisted the Local Government Rural Development department in developing the rural roads which were later upgraded to establish year-round connectivity with the district towns.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 unleashed another wave of migration of population to neighbouring countries. About 3 million Afghans took refuge in Pakistan and a million in Iran. Most of the refugees in Pakistan took shelter in the bordering provinces of Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. WFP served food rations to millions living in camps and UNHCR setup shelters for the refugees. Following the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, many refugees returned homes but the outbreak of civil war amongst the war lords halted "refugees' return" and caused another influx of refugees to Pakistan and Iran. The resurgence of Taliban in 1995 and its seize of power in 1997 hardly inspired refugees to return home.
During this tumultuous years, WFP operated highly subsidised Bakery project in Kabul and Jalalabad where over 150,000 vulnerable families were in receipts of daily breads. WFP also supported building rural infrastructures including maintenance of underground irrigation system known as "karees", construction of rural roads, repair of schools and clinics, restoration of agricultural farms etc. through "food for work" programme. WFP successfully supported "Food for Seed" programme through which selected farmers were provided high-yield variety wheat seeds by FAO and on the following year FAO purchased seeds from the farmers and advanced the same to another group of farmers. The farmers were paid in wheat provided by WFP. This cycle of procurement and distribution of high yield variety wheat seeds continued for over five years and reached thousands of farmers. FAO confirmed the intervention resulted in considerable increase of wheat production in Afghanistan.
The famine in 1984 engendered unprecedented sufferings to thousands of populations in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. Drought had destroyed crops in successive years, livestock gradually extinguished and people began to move to urban areas in search of food and shelter. While a two-years old malnourished boy was crawling to a food centre a vulture positioned nearby waiting for the baby to die so that it could eat the corpse. Cavin Carter, a British journalist captured the scene in camera and posted in the media. The picture shook the conscience of the entire world. People, intelligentsia and politicians urged their governments to save the population dying from starvation. WFP was placed in the forefront in mobilising food resources and making it available to the people in dire need. The humanitarian operation in the region lasted for years. At present 86.7 million people benefit from WFP's programmes each year.
Apart from providing emergency food assistance WFP in many countries extended meals to school children with multiple objectives to address hunger amongst the children, reduce drop outs in schools and enhance learning capability. Nepal was an example. WFP supported about 500 primary schools where WFP supplied grains, oil and sugar to cool meals for children. The Ministry of Education became the implementing partner of the school feeding programme. Now 16.4 million children in 65 countries are receiving school meals.
WFP was a pivotal development partner of Sri Lankan government in 1990s. The settlement programme designed to eliminate landlessness entitled selected farmers food rations provided by WFP for 12 to 18 months until they were able to collect first harvest from the land the government had allocated to them in Mahaweli and Hambantota projects. The agricultural land, roads and irrigation net works were developed with the assistance of the World Bank, but resettlement of landless farmers would have been impossible without WFP's assistance. The success of the intervention was conspicuous when donors' representatives witnessed farmers happily settled with families in decent dwellings and children having access to schools.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are now at war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 was followed by the emergence of independent states in Central Asia based on ethnicity. Nagorno-Karabakh, predominantly habited by Azeri ethnic population, fell within the boundary of Armenia. The ethnic Azeris were expelled from their ancestral homes and pushed into Azerbaijan. The war broke out and Armenia, reportedly with the help of Russian military, consolidated its grip over the enclave. A cease-fire was enforced at the mediation of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union, but the territorial dispute remained unresolved. The displaced population were in dire need of food assistance and the government appealed to international community for help. WFP stepped in and arranged food delivery to the displaced population. The intervention continued till 2006.
I have had the privilege of working with WFP for 30 years and served in several countries including Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Eritrea in varying capacities. I had overseen the implementation of projects narrated in the preceding paragraphs.
Over the years WFP became the "logistics wing" of the United Nations as well. It has 20 ships, 90 planes and 5,600 trucks to arrange transportation of food and non-food materials required to conduct humanitarian operations.
WFP relies on voluntary contribution. The United Sates has been the principal donor, contributed $3.4 billion for the year 2019 and $ 2.73 billion for 2020. Germany and Britain are the next largest donors, both at less than $1 billion. Since WFP operates globally, it is pivotal that countries big and small, wealthy and not so wealthy should prioritise hunger and poverty at the top and commit as much resources as possible. David Beasley, WFP Executive Director said there are 2,000 billionaires in the world and invited them to come forward and help the people in dire need.
WFP estimates that due to Covid-19 the number of people facing food insecurity will surge to 270 million. The World Bank forecasts that global poverty would increase this year for the first time in two decades. It estimates that between 88 to 115 million people would fall into extreme poverty. Covid-19 being intractable and given the alarming forecast about millions falling into extreme poverty, the challenge before the international community and WFP is overwhelming. Not only more resources will be required to help millions of poverty-stricken people, those who are obsessed with spending billions on arms procurement and unscrupulously pursuing armed conflicts must be restrained.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations World Food Programme.