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The World Food Program and the Framework of Humanitarian Action

World Food Program
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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the World Food Program reminds us that there are still large portions of the world where conflict and famine are present. Can WFP’s innovative framework of humanitarian aid be a starting point to start concretely addressing this issues? 

The decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program (WFP), while representing a deserved recognition of the organization’s worldwide humanitarian efforts, can also be seen as a deeply symbolic gesture. In a year in which the global political and economic frameworks have been scaled back at such an unusual and perhaps unprecedented rate, rewarding an organization that actively attempts to provide concrete help to those communities who are currently facing conflict, famine or have non-sufficient access to appropriate health care, serves as a reminder to those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy a comforting degree of social and financial stability. A reminder that there are still large portions of the world that are far from having such stability and that a widespread awareness of this may lead to more extensive and efficient action to combat it, which is ultimately bound to increase the global welfare and have positive consequences for global human development.

The current figures alone are enough to indicate that the situation is extremely alarming. According to WFP’s data, there are currently roughly 821 million undernourished people worldwide, meaning about 11% of the world population. Of those 821 million, 700 million are considered “hungry”, meaning “chronically food insecure”, and 60% of them live in areas that are currently facing conflict. War, in fact, remains a harsh reality for many communities around the world. According to the International Crisis Group, in the past five years the trends concerning number of conflicts, number of people killed and number of civilians targeted by war have all worsened. What is startling other than the trend itself is the involvement of non-state actors in such wars, which is continuously increasing; that makes the modality and consequences of conflicts more unpredictable and therefore more difficult to operate within. Moreover, the World Health Organization has estimated that nearly half of the world population still lacks coverage for the most essential health expenses. That means that the coverage of personal medical care tends to threaten many people’s financial stability; in fact, 100 million people a year are forced into extreme poverty due to health expenses. Considering that all these figures are likely to worsen as the consequences of the pandemic keep unfolding, the combination of these numbers shows that global welfare is being disturbingly threatened.

The humanitarian actions of organizations such as WFP, while certainly extremely notable, are not enough to guarantee an across-the-board development that will truly resolve these issues in the long run, especially since new conflicts keep arising in different parts of the world. What WFP has managed to build over the past few decades, though, is a framework designed to make humanitarian action efficient, dynamic and lasting in time; a framework that can credibly serve as a model for other organizations that have similar humanitarian purposes as WFP’s.

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Founded in 1962, the World Food Program is the food-branch of the United Nations and, as of today, the world’s largest humanitarian organization. Originally designed to be solely a food distributor for communities in situations classified as “emergencies” (usually conflict areas but possibly also places where food production is inhibited by droughts and/or natural disasters), WFP has since evolved and expanded to become an organization that does not simply distribute food as a final good to people suffering from malnutrition or chronic hunger, but that employs its resources – all of which come from private donations by individuals and governments – to prevent famine and to preserve or reinstate a minimally acceptable level of personal welfare. That involves investing in technologies that prevent natural disasters or at least limit their impact on people’s wellbeing, aiding reconstruction in war-torn cities and, where possible, working with local governments to increase their capacity to combat hunger in their respective countries. Last year, WFP reports to have assisted 97 million people in 88 different countries, distributing more than 15 billion rations by mobilizing 5,600 trucks, 30 ships and nearly 100 planes on any given day.

A huge part of what makes WFP’s humanitarian action unique is its extremely developed and intricate delivery system, designed to ultimately coincide with an increase in human development for the places that are receiving the organization’s aid rather than simply providing a series of temporary handouts. Since it has offices all around the world, WFP works to be able to understand local economic dynamics of countries in which it operates and to navigate within their bureaucracy. That is particularly shown by WFP’s collaboration with local private logistics sectors, especially within the transport sector. The result is that WFP can utilize local warehouse units to store the food it needs to distribute, while pieces of infrastructure such as roads, harbors and aviation stations that connect remote communities to bigger cities are built. Initially, the goal of this is to allow for WFP to mobilize its vehicles and distribute food and/or resources in isolated communities, but intuitively those same isolated communities will be able to utilize these pieces of infrastructure even after the emergency has passed, which means that they will be more connected to bigger cities. This has positive effects for everyone’s wellbeing: for example, the partnership that WFP managed to establish with 11 Syrian transport companies to lead its operation within the country when the conflict broke out in 2011, is deemed to have had a positive effect on employment as well as on Syrian economy in general, while also giving WFP the chance to efficiently provide some aid to the many civilians whose lives were torn apart by the conflict.

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Another extremely important feature of WFP’s framework that makes its operations unique is its cash-based transfers system. Where the nature and condition of the financial sector allows it, WFP issues assistance in the form of physical bank notes, e-money, value vouchers or other formats of money. The main reason behind such a strategy is to empower the people that receive this kind of assistance by giving them the choice of how to be assisted and improve their own wellbeing. Usually, food still ends up being the most crucial element to such wellbeing, but some individuals may find medical care more immediately necessary and therefore choose to spend a larger portion of the money received that way. Introduced for the first time in 2010, WFP’s cash-based transfers system today constitutes 38% of the organization’s assistance portfolio, for a total of $ 2.1 billion having been utilized in cash-based transfers in 2019. Through this system, money is directly injected in the local economy, which leads to economic growth as well as an increase in human development and in purchasing power, all elements that bring a country closer to self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate goal.

Obviously, adopting a cash-based transfer system involves many nuances that make the operational strategy quite complex, since there are many questions to be answered in order to provide a level of assistance that is appropriate for the circumstances that a given emergency or community requires. For each project, WFP needs to assess whether the country’s financial system allows for cash-based transfers to be effective, or whether food distribution is more suitable; in some cases, a combination of the two is the best option. Then, in case cash-based transfers are agreed to be the best form of assistance, there must be an idea of their format, and a decision on the most appropriate amount of money to be devoted to each individual needs to be made, which involves knowing things like the cost of a basket of essential goods in such country. Moreover, an efficient framework to monitor the way in which such money is spent by individuals has to be designed. These are all very complex matters that the WFP network attempts to provide an answer to by means of quantitative analysis. The results provided, though, have mostly been successful, since there is data that shows how cash-based transfer systems led to significant development, among others, in Bangladesh, Kenya, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq in the past few years.

Although there certainly are some flaws within the system that the World Food Program has designed and operates within, and although there is room for improving and perfecting certain components of its framework, WFP’s humanitarian action is undoubtedly proof of a relentless attempt to try guaranteeing human rights in contexts where they would otherwise be impossible to guarantee. Therefore, rewarding the actions of WFP with the Nobel Peace Prize is the sort of recognition that encourages a continuous development in humanitarian action around the world, and simultaneously gives the alarming figures presented above some much-needed spotlight. It is crucial for as many people to be active on these issues, especially at a time in which new potentially alarming contexts keep arising, such as Ethiopia being declared on the verge of civil war following the central government’s order to attack one of its regions, and in which established devastating conflicts such as the ones in Yemen, in Somalia, in Syria, in South Sudan and in many others, are still far from being over.

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Editorial Director

Raised in Rome by Bosnian parents, I try to use writing as a tool to decipher the world around me and all its complexities by taking different perspectives into consideration. In Bocconi, I am studying Politics and Policy Analysis

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