UN food program cuts back aid

ACCRA, Ghana — The worldwide financial crisis is now affecting Africa's hungriest people, in places like Eastern Chad and the Ethiopian steppes, as the United Nations World Food Program struggles to feed growing numbers of famished people on a tighter budget.

Despite the global economic crunch, global humanitarian giving to food support has actually increased slightly — but it just hasn’t kept up with global hunger, say U.N. officials.

The World Food Program had a $6.7 billion budget for 2009 but it has received less than roughly $2 billion so far. In its rosiest projections, the agency hopes to receive $3.7 billion by the year's end.

For Africans living off trucked-in food aid, that means lighter and fewer rations. Food agencies are surveying medical reports from distant camps to select which parts of the population they can cut from their programs.

In drought-troubled Uganda, the U.N. hopes to feed 2 million people, but has less than a third of its expected funding. Officials have had to suspend food deliveries to 600,000 Ugandans in the nation’s north alone.

In Ethiopia, the U.N. has altogether stopped food aid to 200,000 people who would otherwise be receiving regular rations. The number of people who qualify for food aid in that country has swelled from 4.2 million at the start of the year, to about 6 million, and the hunger season — when food from the last harvest runs out — began in earnest only last month. Officials have also had to cut specialized maternal and childcare services. The Somalia program, $130 million short, will likely cut rations in south and central Somalia, and cut all food aid to northern Somalia, as foodstocks peter out in October.

By the end of September, officials in Kenya expect to run out of cereals, the bulk of their food provisions.

“We fear that we could be looking at, in the next couple of months, the worst emergency in Kenya since the big drought in the year 2000,” said Peter Smerdon, senior spokesperson for the Kenya program.

In Rome, the U.N. announced that it will no longer be able to afford the chartered flights that bring U.N. doctors, nutritionists, sanitation experts and maternal healthcare workers into the remote small towns and refugee camps where so much U.N. food aid is distributed.

“If we don't get a cash injection by that time, we will have to start winding the service down, and ultimately the whole service itself will be suspended,” said the program’s senior public affairs officer, Greg Barrow.

“How will doctors reach their patients? How will people have clean water if the engineers who help to build wells can’t get there?” wrote Pierre Carrasse, chief of the program’s aviation department, in a media statement.

The timing comes at an awkward moment for farmers and livestock herders in East Africa and the Sahel, where drought and high food prices have aggravated unemployment and hunger.
Food prices in African markets have been so awry that, in a rare twist, the U.N. finds itself feeding the urban poor in capital city shantytowns, where humanitarian assistance has never before been needed. Many of the newcomers there are ex-shepherds and goatherds who have abandoned the desiccating pastures of Africa's Sahel.

Those herders who have stayed behind, and are trying to eke out a living despite plummeting livestock prices, are becoming more difficult for aid agencies like WFP to reach.

And the food itself is coming from further afield, too. In East Africa, food agencies are buying foodstocks from India and South Africa to keep from depleting the already strained local supply.

"We're at the point where the numbers of hungry people are projected to pass 1 billion for the first time in human history," Barrow said. "The budget that we are asking for this year is a lot of money, but if you compare it to the amount of money that governments have found for financial rescue programs and economic stimulus, it's actually not a lot, and the impact if we can't find that money is going to be huge."