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A well-deserved Nobel for WFP

General view shows the exterior of The World Food Programme (WFP) headquarters in Rome. File   | Photo Credit: AFP

“The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme (WFP) is a humbling and moving recognition of the work of WFP staff who lay their lives on the line every day to bring food assistance for close to 100 million children, women and men across the world,” said David Beasley, its Executive Director. As the world’s leading humanitarian agency, the WFP provides succour to victims of natural calamities, war and civil strife, besides millions of hungry and under-nourished people in almost half the countries around the globe.

Every day, some 5,000 trucks, 30 ships and 100 planes are marshalled by the WFP to deliver food and other supplies in the most challenging of circumstances. On the one hand, relief materials are reached to regions devastated by floods, earthquakes and droughts; on the other, food assistance is provided to displaced populations and people caught in situations where governance structures have collapsed. Not only is this a logistical operation of staggering proportions but it also calls for a rare level of professionalism from the organisation’s workforce.

It is all in a day’s work for the WFP’s field workers to negotiate with local warlords to allow the passage of materials-laden vehicles, bargain with thugs to permit fair distribution of supplies, and resist the depredations of criminal gangs. Not infrequently, they operate where there is also a complete breakdown of infrastructure and an absence of any form of civil government. Physical danger and lack of personal comforts are inescapable features of the WFP’s field conditions.

Given this reality, I was amazed to witness at first hand the alacrity with which WFP officials would opt for postings leaving behind the comforts of the headquarters at Rome. A lady officer from the western hemisphere did not baulk at getting separated from her family to take up an assignment in war-torn Afghanistan, and a youngster from Europe grabbed at a stint in a disturbed corner in Latin America. During visits to their offices in Mozambique and Uganda, I personally experienced the work ethic and infectious enthusiasm of WFP personnel. Venturing deep into the hinterland braving security issues and personal hardship, the officials — hailing from disparate countries — ensured that humanitarian assistance reached the most needy in the most distant settlements. The satisfaction of pulling communities out of the trap of hunger and poverty was clearly the only recompense they sought.

I was fortunate to gain a working knowledge — and deep appreciation — of the WFP during a tenure of four years in Rome on its Executive Board as the representative of the Government of India. Associated with formulating the organisation’s strategic trajectory and policy parameters, what left a defining memory was the missionary zeal of its workforce.

The WFP was established in 1965 in response to widespread food crises as a multilateral food aid programme of the UN. With its mission of ending global hunger, the WFP was tasked with assisting national governments in relief, rehabilitation and recovery of populations affected by food emergencies. It emerged as the frontline agency in the fight against hunger, progressively coordinating communications and providing logistical support to all UN agencies during emergencies. As the need for emergency food aid diminished across the globe, the WFP shifted focus to reducing vulnerability and building resilience to shocks. Since 2000, the emphasis is on food assistance: a holistic and longer-term approach to nutritional needs of communities.

The WFP depends entirely on voluntary contributions of governments and others (including individuals), and the scope of its activities is circumscribed by its financial resources. In the current year, due to the global pandemic, the WFP expects to have to support 138 million people, 40% more than in 2019. Though donations to the organisation have grown from $2.72 billion in 2005 to $8.05 billion in 2019, this is well short of what is required to fulfil the WFP’s mandate and, indeed, to effectively utilise the capacity of its remarkable workforce. (Note that during the same period, India’s contribution to the WFP fell from $35 million to less than $1 million.) It is hoped that the Nobel Prize will encourage donors to support this inspirational institution not just to alleviate hunger but to eradicate it once and for all.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 5:16:16 PM |

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