Food aid 'misdirected'

January 16, 1998

Huw Richards reports on the British International Studies Association.

Governments are neglecting one of the most effective means of combating starvation in the way they fund United Nations agencies, researchers have warned.

Philip White, project manager in the Centre for Development Studies at Leeds University, told the British International Studies Association annual conference in Leeds that huge amounts of money go into emergency food relief to prevent natural and manmade disasters from turning into famines. But scarcely 1 per cent of this goes into agricultural relief programmes that could restore food production.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation provides tools and seed to help farming communities resume operations as soon as possible. But it has great difficulty in getting funding for its agricultural relief programme.

"The FAO receives only about 3 per cent of the money it requests for the programme. Yet agricultural relief is a great deal more cost effective," said Dr White.

He said that although his research had started off as a case study examination of UN agencies, it had turned into a study of donors' behaviour.

"They are preoccupied with emergency food relief. Governments are prone to act in ways that bring them political credit at home by producing quick results. There is much more kudos in providing aid of the sort that gets on to television screens than in longer-term aid that might prevent famine."

One problem is an old-established UN division between development and humanitarian aid, he said. "This has come under increasing criticism for very good reasons and there is growing awareness of the need to develop a relief/development continuum."

The FAO, traditionally a development agency, has become aware of its relief role - prompted in part by a resolution passed during the 1995-96 session of the UN's Economic and Social Council, which called for closer coordination between the two functions.

Dr White, who has drafted an Emergency Preparedness and Response manual for the FAO, points to an eight-stage response that runs through prevention, preparedness, early warning, impact and needs assessment, relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction and sustainable recovery.

He has written: "Given the very high costs of relief, the rationale is not only one of minimising the acute suffering associated with emergencies, but one of reducing their costs and freeing resources for recovery and development."

The FAO's agricultural relief programme is followed by rehabilitation. For example, fertiliser assistance in Cambodia between 1992 and 1996 led to an extra 60,000 tonnes of rice annually, higher farm incomes, the training of 150 extension workers, a nationwide databank covering rice-growing areas and the revitalisation of the private fertiliser-producing sector as demand grew.

The FAO does not get everything right - the FAO's special relief operations service is understaffed and its projects need better monitoring and evaluation. But Dr White has little doubt that the basic approach is right and the need now is for a campaign to convince donors of the case "for a more comprehensive approach to complex emergencies".

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