Last month, the World Food Program made a welcome announcement: For the first time since the Syria conflict first erupted, the United Nations food agency’s emergency operation feeding more than 5 million people had received enough funding to sustain it through most of 2016. As a result, ration cuts that had been made last summer were restored and families will once again receive enough food assistance to stay healthy.
What’s unfortunate is how long it took to secure this support. For the past six months, Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere have been barely getting by. Last July, WFP was forced to halve its rations from $28 per person per month to just $14. For Syrian children, the consequences of half a year of inadequate nutrition could last a lifetime. As an aid worker told me once, “Food can’t be made up for.”
Worse still, financial support for the agency’s operation within Syria runs out again in October, at which time WFP will face the prospect of cutting food assistance for the country’s most vulnerable.
These chronic shortfalls — and the ration cuts that result — don’t just affect the Syria operation. These shortcomings are a reality humanitarian agencies like WFP face all over the globe all the time. In my nearly 15 years working for WFP, they weren’t the exception, they were the norm. Last year, less than half of the agency’s programs were fully funded.
Budget shortages are especially common in places where conflict simmers for years on end. Once these wars fall off the front pages, they’re often forgotten altogether. All too often, it’s the refugees in Somalia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, who are often forced to go without. Last fall, families in Dadaab — the world’s largest refugee camp — saw their food rations cut by 30 percent when money ran out. Just today, WFP warned that funding gaps for its programs in Mauritania had pushed some 450,000 people into hunger.
These cuts mean less food on the table for the poorest families. It means millions of men, women and children in the most desperate circumstances are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements. And for pregnant women and children under two years old, these ration cuts mean impaired physical and mental development that can never be recovered — not to mention the personal agony of seeing your own children in pain. Fatmeh, a young Syrian woman living in a weather-beaten tent in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, told one WFP staffer that she tries to help her sons cope with the hunger pangs by tying scarves around their bellies.
Erratic humanitarian funding also cripples long-term development. When disaster strikes, development programs like school meals are often the first to be suspended. This is especially dangerous for the world’s poorest children, who often rely on food in the classroom as their only meal of the day. When resources are diverted away from development programs to support emergency relief, long-term progress can’t be achieved.
This is no way for a family to live or a relief agency to function.
But there is hope.
We can make relief work more effective through smarter financing. Right now, emergency aid is typically funded on a yearly basis. But unlike natural disasters such as typhoons or earthquakes, man-made disasters can last for years on end. Treating these prolonged conflicts as short-term emergencies means failing to address long-term issues like education and livelihoods. What we need is multi-year funding that is flexible, predictable and sustainable.
The current humanitarian system is primarily bankrolled by voluntary contributions from governments and intergovernmental organizations that are only loosely and informally coordinated. Some donors vary widely in their contributions from year to year. The result is uncertainty at the start of each year as to who will be contributing and how much will be provided.
We also need to be able to mobilize resources more quickly. Current financing mechanisms are slow to respond to the kind of unexpected surges in need that often accompany war, which means shortfalls in the early — and critical — stages of a humanitarian response. Even when resources are available, donor restrictions on how and where it can be spent mean it doesn’t always reach all people in need.
As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in January: “We are living in the age of the megacrises.” Until we improve the way our humanitarian system is financed, the situation will only get worse.
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Allan Jury is the senior adviser for World Food Program USA, where he works with lawmakers and advocates to shape U.S. food and agriculture policies. Before joining WFP USA in 2013, he worked as the director of the WFP's U.S. relations office in Washington D.C. From 2004 to 2008, he served as WFP's director of external relations in Rome. He joined WFP in March 2001 as chief of the policy service following a 25-year career with the U.S. Department of State.
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