A Worrying Trend

World food prices are soaring, and this is having serious consequences on people’s livelihoods in the developing world. In addition, for organizations and agencies involved in food distribution or aid, the spike in food prices is also having an adverse effect on their ability to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. In recent news:

USAID announced that the cost of wheat and other food had gone up by 41 percent setting its budget back by US$121 million, which meant it would have to reduce the amount of food aid sent overseas (more here)

With local and international food shortages, merchants in Kano’s Dawanau grain market, the largest in West Africa [Nigeria], have hiked their prices. The price of a 50kg bag of maize has doubled since September from US$21 to US$42 and a bag of millet rose from US$29 to US$42, according to Magaji Ahmad, one of the merchants. Cowpeas, which sold at US$58 are now US$100, he added (more here)

In Burkina Faso, which was badly affected by floods in 2007 and has this year been roiled by violent protests over high food prices, sacks of corn are selling for double the price they were a year earlier, setting back impoverished Burkinabe 15,000 CFA francs (US$30) a sack compared to 7,500 CFA francs (US$15), according to FCPN.

“Recent assessments indicate that that food and nutritional situation could deteriorate due to a continued rise in food product prices,” FEWSNET warned.

Food riots have also recently taken place in Guinea Conakry, Mauritania and Senegal. Those countries depend heavily on imported wheat and rice which are more affected by high global commodity prices than upheavals in the regional markets […] Stephanie Savaraud, West Africa spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that school feeding and supplementary feeding would be appropriate responses to help support Burkina Faso, but warned that WFP faces its own funding crunch. “Rising prices for basic commodities mean WFP needs 30 percent more money this year to feed the same number of beneficiaries,” she said. “If we don’t get that then we will need to give less food to people.”(more here)

Food Market in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso – August 07

These problems in West Africa are obviously not happening in a vacuum – this in the context of rising food prices worldwide , due to a combination of interrelated factors, like increasing transportation costs due to the spike in oil prices, or poor crop yields in some regions because of droughts or floods. However, as usual, the poorest will bear the brunt of the current crisis – the excerpts above reveal two major consequences: one, that people are finding it increasingly harder to provide for themselves; two, that international agencies and NGOs are going to face difficulties trying to fulfill their mission – their budgets are not increasing, while their expenses are. While finding a solution to the former is a global challenge – governments all over the world are trying to address this issue – the latter problem highlights a structural problem in food aid – the fact that most food aid programs do not use local agricultural products. USAID only sends US agricultural products overseas, tapping into the giant production surplus its industry has generated

(on that topic, I highly recommend a documentary called “Famine Business” – I saw this at a film festival in Cape Town in 2003, and since then, it has mysteriously disappeared…. The only quote available on Google: “Film-maker Jihan El Tahri travels to Zambia to investigate claims that food aid is not necessarily the altruistic way of helping the poor that it seems. With the current Agriculture Minister for Zambia describing food-aid as ‘the use of food as a weapon of mass destruction’, El Tahri asks just who benefits from the famine business in an era of genetically modified food.”)

In any case, it seems that international agencies and organizations involved in providing food aid should place the utmost importance on supporting local agricultural production by purchasing food from local farmers. The WFP has a yearly budget which reaches nearly $3 billion – and they also have some of the lowest overhead cost of any large international agency. If these funds could be used productively, by investing in local production, this could yield some large scale benefits for producers in developing nations.

Food aid could help feed people not simply through charity – giving food to the hungry. It could also be construed as a means to boost local food producers, who find it terribly hard to export on the world market. Not only would this galvanize local economies, but it would also cut down on transportation costs. As everyone not living in a cave knows, transportation costs are soaring. Not only that, but in a world where concerns surrounding climate change and pollution are becoming increasingly important, buying locally also provides food aid agencies the opportunity to do their part in protecting the environment….

I don’t have all the answers to this incredibly worrying issue of soaring world food prices – in the short run, this could fuel instability in the poorest parts of the world (it already has in Burkina Faso and Egypt, for example.) In places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where poverty prevails and where the threat of political instability is all too real, this becomes a serious issue. The Food Crisis Prevention Network recommends building stocks in high risk zones, and commended Burkina for subsidizing certain food products. But in countries where warehousing and stocking is dependent on fragile infrastructure, and subsidies strain already exiguous budgets, these are only band-aid solutions and do not address the root causes of the problem – at all.

Meanwhile, Haitians are eating mud cakes.

Fasten your seat belt, we will be experiencing turbulence.

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